Do Comets Explain Mystery Star’s Bizarre Behavior?

A new study indicates that in about a million years, a star will pass close to our Solar System, sending comets towards Earth and the other planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The story of KIC 8462852 appears far from over. You’ll recall NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when its light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Models to explain its erratic behavior were so lacking that some considered the possibility that alien megastructures built to capture sunlight around the host star (think Dyson Spheres) might be the cause.

But a search using the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array for two weeks in October detected no significant radio signals or other signs of intelligent life emanating from the star’s vicinity. Something had passed in front of the star and blocked its light, but what?

The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Shattered comets and asteroids were also suggested as possible explanations — dust and ground-up rock would be at the right temperature to glow in the infrared — but Kepler could only observe in visible light where any debris would be invisible or swamped by the light of the star. So researchers looked through older observations made in 2010 by the  Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. Unfortunately, WISE observed the star before the strange variations were seen and therefore before any putative dust-busting collisions.

Not to be stymied, astronomers next checked out the data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which like WISE, is optimized for infrared light.  Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 much more recently in 2015.

“Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The images was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3)  imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope in January 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

I’d love to report that Spitzer tracked down glowing dust but no, it also came up empty-handed. This makes the idea of an asteroidal smash-up very unlikely, but not one involving comets according to Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University (Ames) who led the new study. Marengo proposes that cold comets are responsible. Picture a family of comets traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star with a very large comet at the head of the pack responsible for the big fading seen by Kepler in 2011. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of various-sized fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light. By 2015, the comets would have moved even farther away on their long orbital journey, leaving no detectable infrared excess.

“This is a very strange star,” said Marengo. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.'”

Clearly, more long-term observations are needed. And frankly, I’m still puzzled why cold or less active comets might still not be detected by their glowing dust. But let’s assume for a moment the the comet idea is correct. If so, we should expect to see similar dips in KIC 8462852’s light as the comet swarm swings around again.

Sweet Sights for November Nights

A pretty crescent moon will be the first thing you'll see appear in the sky tonight. Look southwest shortly after sunset to spot it. Source: Stellarium

Clear night ahead? Let’s see what’s up. We’ll start close to home with the Moon, zoom out to lonely Fomalhaut 25 light years away and then return to our own Solar System to track down the 7th planet. Even before the sky is dark, you can’t miss the 4-day-old crescent Moon reclining in the southwestern sky. Watch for it to wax to a half-moon by Thursday as it circles Earth at an average speed of 2,200 mph (3,600 km/hr). That fact that it orbits Earth means that the angle the Moon makes with the sun and our planet constantly varies, the reason for its ever-changing phase.

You'll see two and possibly three lunar "seas" tonight (Nov. 15). Only a portion of Mare Tranquilliitatis (Seas of Tranquility) is exposed. The large crater Janssen, 118 miles wide and 1.8 miles deep, is visible in binoculars. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Legrande and Chevalley
You’ll see two and possibly three lunar “seas” tonight (Nov. 15). Only a portion of Mare Tranquilliitatis (Seas of Tranquility) is exposed. The large crater Janssen, 118 miles wide and 1.8 miles deep, is visible in binoculars. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Legrande and Chevalley

With the naked eye you’ll be able to make two prominent dark patches within the crescent — Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) and Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fecundity). Each is a vast, lava-flooded plain peppered with thousands of craters , most of which require a telescope to see. Not so Janssen. This large, 118-mile-wide (190-km) ring will be easy to pick out in a pair of seven to 10 power binoculars. Janssen is named for 19th century French astronomer Pierre Janssen, who was the first to see the bright yellow line of helium in the sun’s spectrum while observing August 1868 total solar eclipse.

Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, has but one bright star, 1st magnitude Fomalhaut. It shines all by its lonesome in the south around 7 p.m. local time at mid-month. The star is located only 25 light years from Earth. Source: Stellarium
Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, has but one bright star, 1st magnitude Fomalhaut. It shines all by its lonesome in the south around 7 p.m. local time at mid-month. The star is located only 25 light years from Earth. Source: Stellarium

English scientist Norman Lockyer also observed the line later in 1868 and concluded it represented a new solar element which he named “helium” after “helios”, the Greek word for sun. Helium on Earth wouldn’t be discovered for another 10 years, making this party-balloon gas the only element first discovered off-planet!

See the fish now? Greek mythology tells us that Piscis Austrinus is the "Great Fish", the parent of the two fish in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces the Fish. Source: Stellarium
See the fish now? Greek mythology tells us that Piscis Austrinus is the “Great Fish”, the parent of the two fish in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces the Fish. Source: Stellarium

Directing your gaze south around 7 o’clock, you’ll see a single bright star low in the southern sky. This is Fomalhaut in the dim constellation of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. The Arabic name means “mouth of the fish”. If live under a dark, light-pollution-free sky, you’ll be able to make out a loop of faint stars vaguely fish-like in form. Aside from being the only first magnitude star among the seasonal fall constellations, Fomalhaut stands out in another way — the star is ringed by a planet-forming disk of dust and rock much as our own Solar System was more than 4 billion years ago.

The planet Fomalhaut b orbits Fomalhaut inside a circumstellar disk of dust and rock, taking about 1,700 years to orbit. Brilliant Fomalhaut, represented by the small, white dot, has been masked from view, so astronomers could photograph the much fainter disk. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Space Telescope
The planet Fomalhaut b orbits Fomalhaut inside a circumstellar disk of dust and rock, taking about 1,700 years to orbit. Brilliant Fomalhaut, represented by the small, white dot, has been masked from view, so astronomers could photograph the much fainter disk. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Space Telescope

Within that disk is a new planet, Fomalhaut b, with less than twice Jupiter’s mass and enshrouded either by a cloud of dusty debris or a ring system like Saturn. Fomalhaut b has the distinction of being the first extrasolar planet ever photographed in visible light. The plodding planet takes an estimated 1,700 years to make one loop around Fomalhaut, with its distance from its parent star varying from about 50 times Earth’s distance from the sun at closest to 300 times that distance at farthest.

Shoot a diagonal across the Square of Pegasus to 4th magnitude Delta Piscium. Point your binoculars here and slide east to 4th magnitude Epsilon and 2° south to the planet Uranus shines at magnitude +5.7 and can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Time shown is around 7 p.m. local time. See detailed map below. Source: Stellarium
Shoot a diagonal across the Square of Pegasus to 4th magnitude Delta Piscium. Point your binoculars here and slide east to 4th magnitude Epsilon and 2° south to the planet Uranus shines at magnitude +5.7 and can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Time shown is around 7 p.m. local time. See detailed map below. Source: Stellarium

Next, we move on to one of the more remote planets in our own solar system, Uranus. The 7th planet from the sun, Uranus reached opposition — its closest to Earth and brightest appearance for the year — only a month ago. It’s well-placed for viewing in Pisces the Fish after nightfall high in the southeastern sky below the prominent sky asterism, the Great Square of Pegasus.

Wide-field binocular view of Uranus' travels now through next April. I've labeled two stars near the planet with their magnitudes - 5.5 and 6.0 - which are similar to Uranus in brightness, so you don't confuse them with the planet. The others are naked eye stars in Pisces. Source: Chris Mariott's SkyMap
Wide-field binocular view of Uranus’ travels now through next April. I’ve labeled several stars near the planet with their magnitudes, which are similar in brightness to Uranus, so you’ll know to tell them apart from the planet. The others are naked eye stars in Pisces. Source: Chris Mariott’s SkyMap

A telescope will tease out its tiny, greenish disk,  but almost any pair of binoculars will easily show the planet as a star-like point of light slowly marching westward against the starry backdrop in the coming weeks. Check in every few weeks to watch it move first west, in retrograde motion, and then turn back east around Christmas. For those with 8-inch and larger telescopes who love a challenge, use this Uranian Moon Finder to track the planet’s two brightest moons, Titania and Oberon, which glimmer weakly around 14th magnitude.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the vacuum with these offerings; they’re just a few of the many highlights of mid-November nights that also include the annual Leonid meteor shower, which peaks Tuesday and Wednesday mornings (Nov. 17-18). So much to see!

A New “Mathematical” Definition Proposed for What Constitutes a Planet

Three exoplanet candidates found by the Planet Hunters citizen science project. Credit: Zooniverse

In the current (heated) debate of what constitutes a planet, it seems everyone can agree at least one thing: The current definition put forth by the International Astronomical Union is actually quite vague and it really only applies to our own Solar System. So while the definition is unclear at best in our own neighborhood, it also doesn’t provide a framework for classifying the thousands of exo-worlds that are being discovered on almost a weekly basis.

Since math has been dubbed “the language of the Universe” it seems rather fitting and logical to use arithmetic to help in framing a better definition for planethood.

This week, UCLA professor Jean-Luc Margot has proposed a simple mathematical test that can be used to separate planets from other bodies like dwarf planets and minor planets. He says his new system is easy.

“One should not need a teleportation device to decide whether a newly discovered object is a planet,” Margot said.

The new approach would use estimates of the star’s mass and the planet’s mass and orbital period. Since the IAU’s definition is based primarily on the ability of a planet to “clear its orbit,” (whether it can accumulate or dominate small bodies in its orbital neighborhood), Margot’s test narrows this down to a specific timeframe of determining whether a body can clear a specific region around its orbit.

“A simple metric can be used to determine whether a planet or exoplanet can clear its orbital zone during a characteristic time scale, such as the lifetime of the host star on the main sequence,” Margot writes in his paper. “This criterion requires only estimates of star mass, planet mass, and orbital period, making it possible to immediately classify 99% of all known exoplanets.”

Under these criteria, all 8 planets and all classifiable exoplanets would be classified as planets. It also keeps the distinction between planets and dwarf planets. Some have pointed out that Margot’s criteria would make our Moon a planet. But, as Margot told Universe Today, that’s not necessarily so. “It really depends on how the IAU decides to define satellites and if or how they decide to define double planets,” he said.

Margot says his definition would be useful in generalizing and simplifying the definition of a planet, and that the information for applying this for exoplanets is easily obtained with Earth- or space-based telescopes.

“The disparity between planets and non-planets is striking,” Margot said. “The sharp distinction suggests that there is a fundamental difference in how these bodies formed, and the mere act of classifying them reveals something profound about nature.”

Margot also found that bodies that can clear their orbits — and therefore qualify as planets — are typically spherical.

“Because a quantitative orbit-clearing criterion can be applied to all planets and exoplanets,” Margot writes, “it is possible to extend the 2006 IAU planet definition to stars other than the Sun and to remove any possible ambiguity about what it means to clear an orbital zone.”

Margot presented his proposal at the annual meeting of the AAS’s Division for Planetary Sciences. It is not known whether the new approach will be considered by the IAU.

Further reading: Margot’s paper, UCLA press release

Radio waves absent from the reputed megastructure-encompassed Kepler star?

Radio observations were carried out from the Allen Telescope Array of the reputed megastructure-encompassed star KIC 8462852.

Astronomers at the SETI institute (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have reported their findings after monitoring the reputed megastructure-encompassed star KIC 8462852.  No significant radio signals were detected in observations carried out from the Allen Telescope Array between October 15-30th (nearly 12 hours each day).  However, there are caveats, namely that the sensitivity and frequency range were limited, and gaps existed in the coverage (e.g., between 6-7 Ghz).

Lead author Gerald Harp and the SETI team discussed the various ideas proposed to explain the anomalous Kepler brightness measurements of KIC 8462852, “The unusual star KIC 8462852 studied by the Kepler space telescope appears to have a large quantity of matter orbiting quickly about it. In transit, this material can obscure more than 20% of the light from that star. However, the dimming does not exhibit the periodicity expected of an accompanying exoplanet.”  The team went on to add that, “Although natural explanations should be favored; e.g., a constellation of comets disrupted by a passing star (Boyajian et al. 2015), or gravitational darkening of an oblate star (Galasyn 2015), it is interesting to speculate that the occluding matter might signal the presence of massive astroengineering projects constructed in the vicinity of KIC 8462582 (Wright, Cartier et al. 2015).”

One such megastructure was discussed in a famous paper by Freeman Dyson (1960), and subsequently designated a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.  In order to accommodate an advanced civilisation’s increasing energy demands, Dyson remarked that, “pressures will ultimately drive an intelligent species to adopt some such efficient exploitation of its available resources. One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star.”  Dyson further proposed that a search be potentially conducted for artificial radio emissions stemming from the vicinity of a target star.



An episode of Star Trek TNG featured a memorable discussion regarding a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.

The SETI team summarized Dyson’s idea by noting that Solar panels could serve to capture starlight as a source of sustainable energy, and likewise highlighted that other, “large-scale structures might be built to serve as possible habitats (e.g., “ring worlds”), or as long-lived beacons to signal the existence of such civilizations to technologically advanced life in other star systems by occluding starlight in a manner not characteristic of natural orbiting bodies (Arnold 2013).”  Indeed, bright variable stars such as the famed Cepheid stars have been cited as potential beacons.



The Universe Today’s Fraser Cain discusses a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.

If a Dyson Sphere encompassed the Kepler catalogued star, the SETI team were seeking in part to identify spacecraft that may service a large structure and could be revealed by a powerful wide bandwidth signal.  The team concluded that their radio observations did not reveal any significant signal stemming from the star (e.g., Fig 1 below).  Yet as noted above, the sensitivity was limited to above 100 Jy and the frequency range was restricted to 1-10 Ghz, and gaps existed in that coverage.

Fig 1 from Harp et al. 2015 (http://arxiv.org/abs/1511.01606) indicating the lack of signal detected for the Kepler star (black symbols).
Fig 1 from Harp et al. (2015) conveys the lack of radio waves emerging from the star KIC 8462852 (black symbols), however there were sensitivity and coverage limitations (see text).  The signal emerging from the quasar 3c84 is shown via blue symbols.

What is causing the odd brightness variations seen in the Kepler star KIC 8462852?   Were those anomalous variations a result of an unknown spurious artefact from the telescope itself, a swath of comets temporarily blocking the star’s light, or perhaps something more extravagant.  The latter should not be hailed as the de facto source simply because an explanation is not readily available.  However, the intellectual exercise of contemplating the technology advanced civilisations could construct to address certain needs (e.g., energy) is certainly a worthy venture.

New Visualization Shows Incredible Variety of Extraterrestrial Worlds

This poster shows more than 500 exoplanets discovered before October 2015 arranged according to their temperature and density. Credit and copyright: Martin Vargic. Used by permission.

Here’s a great new poster showing over 500 extrasolar planets (about one quarter of the total) that have been discovered since 1988. This visualization, created by graphic artist and writer Martin Vargic from Slovakia, is based on the estimated radius and temperature of the planets, however other factors, such as density, age or stellar metallicity were also taken into consideration. All the various known classes of exoplanets are shown on the graphic, such as super-Earths, hot Jupiters, hot Neptunes, water worlds, gas dwarfs or superdense diamond planets.

Click on the image for a larger version, or a gigantic version here.

I love seeing the variety in sizes, as well as the diversity of projected colors of all the alien worlds.

According to NASA’s Exoplanet Archive website, 1,903 extra solar have been discovered since 1988 as of October 22, 2015.

You may have already seen Vargic’s very cool Map of the Internet, and of special interest to UT readers a map of how the the constellations have changed over time and visualization of the Moon replaced with other bodies, as well as a wide variety of other maps and infographics. You can check out his work on his website, Halcyon Maps. He puts out new graphics each week.

There are lots of ways to plot exoplanets. On the Exoplanet Archive website, you can see plots for exoplanet mass vs. period, temperature, number of exoplanets discovered by year (2014 was a banner year), as well as how the planets were discovered (radial velocity, microlensing, timing variations and orbital brightness modulation).

Previously, we’ve featured other exoplanet visualizations, such as one of Kepler’s transiting exoplanets and exoplanet candidates, plus this cool video visualization of the planetary systems discovered by Kepler that have more than one transiting object, created by Daniel Fabrycky from the Kepler spacecraft science team:

Seeing Starspots: The Curious Case of XX Trianguli

Credit: NASA/JPL/Tom Reding

Ever wonder what happens on the surface of other stars?

An amazing animation was released this week by astronomers at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics (AIP) in Potsam Germany, showing massive sunspot activity on the variable star XX Trianguli (HD 12545). And while ‘starspot’ activity has been seen on this and other stars before, this represents the first movie depicting the evolution of stellar surface activity beyond our solar system.

“We can see our first application as a prototype for upcoming stellar cycle studies, as it enables the prediction of a magnetic-activity cycle on a dramatically shorter timescale than usual,” says Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam astronomer Andreas Kunstler in a recent press release.

The images were the result of a long term analysis of the star carried out using the twin STELLA (STELLar Activity) robotic telescopes based on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The spectroscopic data was gathered over a period of six years, and this video demonstrates that, while other stars do indeed have sunspot cycles similar to our Sun, those of massive stars such as XX Tri are much more intense than any we could imagine here in our own solar system.

Image credit: Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP)
STELLA on the hunt. Image credit:

Even the largest and closest of stars have a minuscule angular diameter –measured in milliarcseconds (mas, our 1/1,000ths of an arc second)—in size. For example, we know from lunar occultation timing experiments that the bright star Antares at 550 light years distant and 5 times the radius of our Sun is about 41 mas in size. At an estimated 910 to 1,500 light years distant and 10 times the radius of our Sun, XX Tri is probably comparable, at about 20 mas in size.

That’s tiny from our perspective, though the massive starspot depicted must be truly gigantic to see up close.

To image something on that scale, astronomers use a technique known as Doppler tomography gathered from high-resolution spectra. Over said six year span covering a period from July 2006 to April 2012, 667 viable spectra were gathered, covering 86 total rotational periods for the star. Incidentally, that’s not much longer than the average equatorial rotational period of our Sun—remember, as a ball of gas, the rotational period of our Sun varies with solar latitude—at about 22 days.

Our relatively sedate host star. image credit: Dave Dickinson
Our relatively sedate host star. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The views compiled by the team show a pole facing, Mercator projection, and a spherical ‘real view’ of the star. Of course, to see XX Tri up close would be amazing, if a not a little intimidating with those massive, angry spots dappling its surface.

Watch the animation, and you can see the changing morphology of the spots, as they decay, merge and defuse again. Just how permanent is that massive pole spot? Why are we seeing spots across the pole of a star like XX Tri at all, something we never see on the Sun? Do other stars follow something analogous to Spörer’s Law and their own version of the 11-year sunspot cycle that we see on Sol?

Capabilities such as those demonstrated by STELLA may soon crack these questions wide open. Composed of two 1.2 meter robotic telescopes jointly operated by the Institute for Astrophysics at Potsdam and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), STELLA combines the capability of a wide-field photometric imager with that of a high-resolution spectrograph, ideal for this sort of analysis of remote stellar surfaces.

Image credit:
A diagram featuring the twin STELLA instruments. Image credit: Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP)

Hey, here’s a crazy idea: turn STELLA loose on KIC 8462852 and see if the hypothesized ‘exo-comets’ or ‘alien mega-structures’ turn up… though it weighs in much smaller than XX Tri at 1.4x solar masses, KIC 8462852 is also about 1,400 light years distant, perhaps just doable using high resolution spectroscopy…

Image credit:
The location of XX Tri (also known as HIP 9630) in the northern sky. Image credit: created by the author using Stellarium planetarium software

Want to see XX Tri for yourself? An RS Canum Venaticorum variable orange giant star (spectral type K0 III) located in the constellation of Triangulum the Triangle, XX Tri shines at magnitude +8.5 and varies over about half a magnitude in brightness. Its coordinates are:

Right Ascension:  2 hours 3 minutes 47 seconds

Declination: 35 North 35 minutes 29 seconds

The more we learn about other stars, the more we understand about how to live with our very own sometimes placid, sometimes tempestuous host star.

Read more about the curious case of XX Trianguli:

On the Starspot Temperature of HD 12545

HD 124545: A Study in Spottedness

Spot evolution on the Star XX Triangulum (sic)

Does XX Trianguli look familiar? That might be because it was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day as ‘imaged’ by the Coude Feed Telescope on Kitt Peak way back when on November 2nd, 2003.

What’s Orbiting KIC 8462852 – Shattered Comet or Alien Megastructure?

Something other than a transiting planet makes the Kepler star KIC fluctuate wildly and unpredictably in brightness. Astronomers suspect a shattered comet, but who knows? Credit: NASA

“Bizarre.” “Interesting.” “Giant transit”.  That were the reactions of Planet Hunters project volunteers when they got their first look at the light curve of the otherwise normal sun-like star KIC 8462852 nearly.

Of the more than 150,000 stars under constant observation during the four years of NASA’s primary Kepler Mission (2009-2013), this one stands alone for the inexplicable dips in its light. While almost certainly naturally-caused, some have suggested we consider other possibilities.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle
Kepler-11, a sun-like star orbited by six planets. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist’s conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by the Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. During each pass or transit, the star’s light fades in a periodic way. 
Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

You’ll recall that the orbiting Kepler observatory continuously monitored stars in a fixed field of view focused on the constellations Lyra and Cygnus hoping to catch  periodic dips in their light caused by transiting planets. If a drop was seen, more transits were observed to confirm the detection of a new exoplanet.

And catch it did. Kepler found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in 440 star systems as of January 2015 with 3,199 unconfirmed candidates. Measuring the amount of light the planet temporarily “robbed” from its host star allowed astronomers to determine its diameter, while the length of time between transits yielded its orbital period.

Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude. Credit: Boyajian et. all
Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude up to 22%. The usual drop in light when an exoplanet transits its host star is a fraction of a percent. The star’s normal brightness has been set to “1.00” as a baseline. Credit: Boyajian et. all

Volunteers with the Planet Hunters project, one of many citizen science programs under the umbrella of Zooniverse, harness the power of the human eye to examine Kepler light curves (a graph of a star’s changing light intensity over time), looking for repeating patterns that might indicate orbiting planets. They were the first to meet up with the perplexing KIC 8462852.

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A detailed look at a small part of the star’s light curve reveals an unknown, regular variation of its light every 20 days. Superimposed on that is the star’s 0.88 day rotation period. Credit: Boyajian et. all

This magnitude +11.7 star in Cygnus, hotter and half again as big as the Sun, showed dips all over the place. Around Day 800 during Kepler’s run, it faded by 15% then resumed a steady brightness until Days 1510-1570, when it underwent a whole series of dips including one that dimmed the star by 22%. That’s huge! Consider that an exo-Earth blocks only a fraction of a percent of a star’s light; even a Jupiter-sized world, the norm among extrasolar planets, soaks up about a percent.

Exoplanets also show regular, repeatable light curves as they enter, cross and then exit the faces of their host stars. KIC 8462852’s dips are wildly a-periodic.

Could a giant comet breakup followed by those pieces crumbling into even smaller comets be the reason for KIC's erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA
Could a giant comet breakup and subsequent cascading breakups of those pieces be behind KIC 8462852’s erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA

Whatever’s causing the flickering can’t be a planet. With great care, the researchers ruled out many possibilities: instrumental errors, starspots (like sunspots but on other stars), dust rings seen around young, evolving stars (this is an older star) and pulsations that cover a star with light-sucking dust clouds.

What about a collision between two planets? That would generate lots of material along with huge clouds of dust that could easily choke off a star’s light in rapid and irregular fashion.

A great idea except that dust absorbs light from its host star, warms up and glows in infrared light. We should be able to see this “infrared excess” if it were there, but instead KIC 8462852 beams the expected amount of infrared for a star of its class and not a jot more. There’s also no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) several years previously that a dust-releasing collision happened around the star.

Our featured star shines around 12th magnitude in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium
Our featured star shines at magnitude +11.7 in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium

After examining the options, the researchers concluded the best fit might be a shattered comet that continued to fragment into a cascade of smaller comets. Pretty amazing scenario. There’s still dust to account for, but not as much as other scenarios would require.

Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It's located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It’s located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Being fragile types, comets can crumble all by themselves especially when passing exceptionally near the Sun as sungrazing comets are wont to do in our own Solar System. Or a passing star could disturb the host star’s Oort comet cloud and unleash a barrage of comets into the inner stellar system. It so happens that a red dwarf star lies within about 1000 a.u. (1000 times Earth’s distance from the Sun) of KIC 8462852. No one knows yet whether the star orbits the Kepler star or happens to be passing by. Either way, it’s close enough to get involved in comet flinging.

So much for “natural” explanations. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, who oversees the Planet Hunters and the lead author of the paper on KIC 8462852, asked Jason Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy at Penn State, what he thought of the light curves. “Crazy” came to mind as soon he set eyes on them, but the squiggles stirred a thought. Turns out Wright had been working on a paper about detecting transiting megastructures with Kepler.

There are Dyson rings and spheres and this, an illustration of a Dyson swarm. Could this or a variation of it be what we're detecting around KIC? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia
There are Dyson rings and spheres and a Dyson swarm depicted here. Could this or a variation of it be what we’re seeing around KIC 8462852? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia

In a recent blog, he writes: “The idea is that if advanced alien civilizations build planet-sized megastructures — solar panels, ring worlds, telescopes, beacons, whatever — Kepler might be able to distinguish them from planets.” Let’s assume our friendly aliens want to harness the energy of their home star. They might construct enormous solar panels by the millions and send them into orbit to beam starlight down to their planet’s surface. Physicist Freeman Dyson popularized the idea back in the 1960s. Remember the Dyson Sphere, a giant hypothetical structure built to encompass a star?

From our perspective, we might see the star flicker in irregular ways as the giant panels circled about it. To illustrate this point, Wright came up with a wonderful analogy:

“The analogy I have is watching the shadows on the blinds of people outside a window passing by. If one person is going around the block on a bicycle, their shadow will appear regularly in time and shape (like a regular transiting planet). But crowds of people ambling by — both directions, fast and slow, big and large — would not have any regularity about it at all.  The total light coming through the blinds might vary like — Tabby’s star.”

The Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT's dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space.
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Even Wright admits that the “alien hypothesis” should be seen as a last resort. But to make sure no stone goes  unturned, Wright, Boyajian and several of the Planet Hunters put together a proposal to do a radio-SETI search with the Green Bank 100-meter telescope. In my opinion, this is science at its best. We have a difficult question to answer, so let’s use all the tools at our disposal to seek an answer.

Star with a mystery, KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. Credit: Gianluca Masi
KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. It’s an F3 V star (yellow-white dwarf) located about 1,480 light years from Earth. Credit: Gianluca Masi

In the end, it’s probably not an alien megastructure, just like the first pulsar signals weren’t sent by LGM-1 (Little Green Men). But whatever’s causing the dips, Boyajian wants astronomers to keep a close watch on KIC 8462852 to find out if and when its erratic light variations repeat. I love a mystery, but  answers are even better.

More livable than Earth? New index sizes up the habitability of alien exoplanets

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA's James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist's conception, will provide more information about previously detected exoplanets. Beyond 2020, many more next-generation space telescopes are expected to build on what it discovers. Credit: NASA

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have devised a new habitability index for judging how suitable alien planets might be for life, and the top prospects on their list are an Earthlike world called Kepler-442b and a yet-to-be confirmed planet known as KOI 3456.02.

Those worlds both score higher than our own planet on the index: 0.955 for KOI 3456.02 and 0.836 for Kepler-442b, compared with 0.829 for Earth and 0.422 for Mars. The point of the exercise is to help scientists prioritize future targets for close-ups from NASA’s yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments.

Astronomers have detected more than 1,000 confirmed planets and almost 5,000 candidates beyond our solar system, with most of them found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. More than 100 of those have been characterized as potentially habitable, and hundreds more are thought to be waiting in the wings. The Webb telescope is expected to start taking a closer look soon after its scheduled launch in 2018.

“Basically, we’ve devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme,” UW astronomer Rory Barnes said Monday in a news release, “so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, ‘OK, that’s the one we want to start with.'”

This isn’t the first habitability index to be devised. Traditionally, astronomers focus on how close a particular exoplanet’s mass is to Earth’s, and whether its orbit is in a “Goldilocks zone” where water could exist in liquid form. But in a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, Barnes and his colleagues say their scheme includes other factors such as a planet’s estimated rockiness and the eccentricity of its orbit.

The formula could be tweaked even further in the future. “The power of the habitability index will grow as we learn more about exoplanets from both observations and theory,” said study co-author Victoria Meadows.

Barnes, Meadows and UW research assistant Nicole Evans are the authors of “Comparative Habitability of Transiting Exoplanets.” The study was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Watch This Amazing Video of an Exoplanet in Motion

An amazing .gif animation of Beta Pictoris in orbit. Image credit: M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto/R. Marchis (SETI Institute)

Exoplanet Beta Pic b orbiting Beta Pictoris from Dunlap Institute on Vimeo.

Just. Wow. The motion of an alien world, reduced to a looping .gif. We truly live in an amazing age. A joint press release out of the Gemini Observatory and the University of Toronto demonstrates a stunning first: a sequence of direct images showing an exoplanet… in motion.

The world imaged is Beta Pictoris b, about 19 parsecs (63 light years) distant in the southern hemisphere constellation Pictor the Painter’s Easel. The Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), working in concert with the Gemini South telescope based in Chile captured the sequence.

The images span an amazing period of a year and a half, starting in November 2013 and running through April of earlier this year. Beta Pictoris b has an estimated 22 year orbital period… hey, in the year 2035 or so, we’ll have a complete animation of its orbit!

Current estimates place Beta Pictoris b in the 7x Jupiter mass range, about plus or minus 4 Jupiter masses… and yes, the high end of that range is flirting with the lower boundary for a sub-stellar brown dwarf. Several exoplanet candidates blur this line, and we suspect that the ‘what is a planet debate?’ that has plagued low mass worlds will one day soon extend into the high end of the mass spectrum as well.

An annotated diagram of the Beta Pictoris system. Image credit: ESO/A.-M Lagrange et al.
An annotated diagram of the Beta Pictoris system. Image credit: ESO/A.-M Lagrange et al.

Beta Pictoris has long been a target for exoplanetary research, as it is known to host a large and dynamic debris disk spanning 4,000 astronomical units across. The host star Beta Pictoris is 1.8 times as massive as our Sun, and 9 times as luminous. Beta Pic is also a very young star, at an estimated age of only 8-20 million years old. Clearly, we’re seeing a very young solar system in the act of formation.

Orbiting its host star 9 astronomical units distant, Beta Pictoris b has an orbit similar to Saturn’s. Place Beta Pictoris b in our own solar system, and it would easily be the brightest planet in the sky.

The Heavyweight world B Pictoris b vs planets in our solar system... note the rapid rotation rate! Image credit: ESO/I. Snellen (Leiden University)
The Heavyweight world B Pictoris b vs planets in our solar system… note the rapid rotation rate! Image credit: ESO/I. Snellen (Leiden University)

“The images in the series represent the most accurate measurements of a planet’s position ever made,” says astronomer Maxwell Millar-Blanchaer of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto in a recent press release. ‘With the GPI, we’re able to see both the disk and the planet at the exact same time. With our combined knowledge of the disk and the planet we’re really able to get a sense of the planetary system’s architecture and how everything interacts.”

A recent paper released in the Astrophysical Journal described observations of Beta Pictoris b made with the Gemini Planet Imager. As with bodies in our own solar system, refinements in the orbit of Beta Pictoris b will enable astronomers to understand the dynamic relationship it has with its local environment. Already, the orbit of Beta Pictoris b appears inclined out of our line of sight in such a way that a transit of the stellar disk is unlikely to occur. This is the case with most exoplanets, which elude the detection hunters such as the Kepler space telescope. As a matter of fact, watching the animation, it looks like Beta Pictoris b will pass behind the occluding disk and out of view of the Gemini Planet Imager in the next few years.

The location of Beta Pictoris in the southern hemisphere sky. Image credit: Stellarium
The location of Beta Pictoris in the southern hemisphere sky. Image credit: Stellarium

“It’s remarkable that Gemini is not only able to directly image exoplanets but is also capable of effectively making movies of them orbiting their parent star,” Says National Science Foundation astronomy division program director Chris Davis in Monday’s press release. The NSF is one of five international partners that funds the Gemini telescope program. “Beta Pic is a special target. The disk of gas and dust from which planets are currently forming was one of the first observed and is a famous laboratory for the study of young solar systems.”

The Gemini Planet Imager is part of the GPI Exoplanet Survey (GPIES), which discovered its first exoplanet 51 Eridani b just last month. The survey will target 600 stars over the next three years. The current tally of known exoplanets currently sits at 1,958 and counting, with thousands more in the queue courtesy of Kepler awaiting confirmation.

And as new spacecraft such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) take to orbit in 2018, we wouldn’t be surprised if the tally of exoplanets hits five digits by the end of this decade.

An amazing view of a brave new world in motion. It’s truly a golden age of exoplanetary science, with more exciting discoveries to come!

A Place for Alien Life? Kepler Mission Discovers Earth’s Older Cousin, Kepler-452b

Kepler-452b
This artist's concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to our sun. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Scientists say NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered Earth’s “older, bigger first cousin” –  a planet that’s about 60 percent bigger than our own, circling a sunlike star in an orbit that could sustain liquid water and perhaps life.

“Today, Earth is a little bit less lonely, because there’s a new kid on the block,” Kepler data analysis lead Jon Jenkins, a computer scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said Thursday during a NASA teleconference about the find.

The alien world, known as Kepler-452b, is about 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus – too far away to reach unless somebody perfects interstellar transporters. But its discovery raises the bar yet again in the search for Earth 2.0, which is a big part of Kepler’s mission.

Jenkins said that Kepler-452b has a better than even chance of being a rocky planet (though there’s some question about that). Its size implies that it’s about five times as massive as Earth. He said the planet might be cloudier than Earth and volcanically active, based on geological modeling. Visiting Earthlings would weigh twice as much as they did on Earth – until they walked around for a few weeks and “lost some serious pounds,” he joked.

An artist's impression  shows the surface of Kepler 452b. In the scenario depicted here, the planet is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history. Kepler 452b could be giving us a preview of what Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now as the sun ages and grows brighter. Credit: Danielle Futselaar / SETI Institute/
An artist’s impression shows the surface of Kepler 452b. In the scenario depicted here, the planet is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history. Kepler 452b could be giving us a preview of what Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now as the sun ages and grows brighter. Credit: Danielle Futselaar / SETI Institute

The planet is about 5 percent farther from its parent star than Earth is from our sun, with a year that lasts 385 days. Its sun is 10 percent bigger and 20 percent brighter than our sun, with the same classification as a G2 dwarf. But Kepler-452b’s star is older than our 4.6 billion-year-old home star – which suggests the cosmic conditions for life could be long-lasting.

“It’s simply awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star, which is longer than the age of the Earth,” Jenkins said. Models for planetary development suggest that Kepler-452b would experience an increasing warming trend and perhaps a runaway greenhouse effect as it aged, he said.

Kepler-452b’s advantages trump the mission’s earlier planetary discoveries. One involved a rocky planet, just a little bigger than Earth, that was found in its parent star’s habitable zone – that is, the kind of orbit where liquid water could exist. But that star, known as Kepler-186, is a shrunken red dwarf rather than a close analog to the sun.

Kepler research scientist Jeff Coughlin said it’s not clear how hospitable a planet circling a red dwarf might be. A rocky planet in the right orbit around a sunlike star is a surer bet. “We’re here on Earth, we know there’s life here,” he said.

Scientists said Kepler-452b is on the target list for the SETI Institute’s search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, using the Allen Telescope Array in California – but no alien detection has been reported. “So far, the 452b-ians have been coy,” Seth Shostak, the institute’s senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research, told Universe Today in an email.

Planetary system comparison
This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside our own solar system, plus another planetary system with a habitable-zone planet known as Kepler-186f. The Kepler-186 system has a faint red dwarf star.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, characterized the newly announced planet as the “closest twin” to Earth discovered so far. However, he said further analysis of the Kepler data may turn up even closer relatives.

Launched in 2009, Kepler detects alien worlds by looking for the faint dimming of a star as a planet crosses its disk. The SUV-sized telescope has spotted more than 4,600 planet candidates.

So far, about 1,000 of those have been confirmed as planets using other methods, ranging from detecting their parent stars’ Doppler shifts to carefully measuring the time intervals between the passages of planets. For Kepler-452b, scientists used ground-based observations and computer models to estimate the mass and confirm the detection to a level of 99.76 percent, Jenkins said.

The findings were due to be published online Thursday by the Astrophysical Journal, Jenkins said. In addition to Kepler-452b, another 521 planet candidates have been added to the mission’s checklist – including 12 candidates that appear to be one to two times as wide as Earth and orbit in their parent stars’ habitable zones. Nine of the stars are similar to our own sun in size and temperature, NASA said in a news release.

There’s sure to be more to come. In 2013, Kepler was crippled by failures of its fine-pointing navigation system, but it returned to its planet-hunting mission last year, thanks to some clever tweaking that makes use of the solar wind as an extra stabilizer. “It’s kind of the best-worst thing that ever happened to Kepler,” Jenkins said.