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.

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

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.

Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?

Eris, the newest planet?
Eris, the newest planet?

With astronomers discovering new planets and other celestial objects all the time, you may be wondering what the newest planet to be discovered is. Well, that depends on your frame of reference. If we are talking about our Solar System, then the answer used to be Pluto, which was discovered by the American astronomer Clyde William Tombaugh in 1930.

Unfortunately, Pluto lost its status as a planet in 2006 when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Since then, another contender has emerged for the title of “newest planet in the Solar System” – a celestial body that goes by the name of Eris – while beyond our Solar System, thousands of new planets are being discovered.

But then, the newest planet might be the most recently discovered extrasolar planet. And these are being discovered all the time.

Continue reading “Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?”

Everything About Kepler-432b is Extreme, Especially the Way it’s Going to Die

Illustration of the orbit of Kepler-432b (inner, red) in comparison to the orbit of Mercury around the Sun (outer, orange). Credit: Dr. Sabine Reffert.

Astronomers are calling Kepler-432b a ‘maverick’ planet because everything about this newly found exoplanet is an extreme, and is unlike anything we’ve found before. This is a giant, dense planet orbiting a red giant star, and the planet has enormous temperature swings throughout its year. In addition to all these extremes, there’s another reason you wouldn’t want to live on Kepler 432b: its days are numbered.

“In less than 200 million years, Kepler-432b will be swallowed by its continually expanding host star,” said Mauricio Ortiz, a PhD student at Heidelberg University who led one of the two studies of the planet. “This might be the reason why we do not find other planets like Kepler-432b – astronomically speaking, their lives are extremely short.”

Kepler-432b is one of the densest and massive planets ever found. The planet has six times the mass of Jupiter, but is about the same size. The shape and the size of its orbit are also unusual, as the orbit is very small (52 Earth days) and highly elongated. The elliptical orbit brings Kepler-432b both incredibly close and very far away from its host star.

“During the winter season, the temperature on Kepler-432b is roughly 500 degrees Celsius,” said Dr. Sabine Reffert from the Königstuhl observatory, which is part of the Centre for Astronomy. “In the short summer season, it can increase to nearly 1,000 degrees Celsius.”

Dr. Davide Gandolfi, also from the Königstuhl observatory, said that the star Kepler-432b is orbiting has already exhausted the nuclear fuel in its core and is gradually expanding. Its radius is already four times that of our Sun and it will get even larger in the future.

While Kepler-432b was previously identified as a transiting planet candidate by the NASA Kepler satellite mission, two research groups of Heidelberg astronomers independently made further observations of this rare planet, acquiring the high-precision measurements needed to determine the planet’s mass. Both groups of researchers used the 2.2-metre telescope at Calar Alto Observatory in Andalucía, Spain to collect data. The group from the state observatory also observed Kepler-432b with the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma (Canary Islands).

The results of this research were published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Source: University of Heidelberg

250 Years of Planetary Detection in 60 Seconds

An animated history of planetary detection, from 1750 to 2015. It shows the period (x-axis), mass (y-axis), radius (circle size) and detection method (color) of the 1800 plus planets now known. Credit and copyright: Hugh Osborn.

Early astronomers realized some of the “stars” in the sky were planets in our Solar System, and really, only then did we realize Earth is a planet too. Now, we’re finding planets around other stars, and thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, we’re able to find planets that are even smaller than Earth.

This great new graphic of the history of planetary detection was put together by Hugh Osborn, a PhD student at the University of Warwick, who works with data from the WASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and NGTS (Next Generation Transit Survey) telescope surveys to discover exoplanets. It starts with the first real “discovery’ of a planet — Uranus in 1781 by William and Caroline Herschel.

“The idea of this plot is to compare our own Solar System (with planets plotted in dark blue) against the newly-discovered extrasolar worlds,” wrote Osborn on his website. “Think of this plot as a projection of all 1873 worlds onto our own solar system, with the Sun (and all other stars) at the far left. As you move out to the right, the orbital period of the planets increases, and correspondingly (thanks to Kepler’s Third Law), so does the distance from the star. Moving upwards means the mass of the worlds increase, from Moon-sized at the base to 10,000 times that of Earth at the top (30 Jupiter Masses).”

You’ll notice a few “clusters” as time moves along. The circles in dark blue are the planets in our Solar System; light blue are planets found by radial velocity. Then in maroon are planets found by direct imaging, followed by orange for microlensing and green for transits.

The first batch of exoplanets were the massive ‘Hot Jupiters’, which were the first exoplanets found “simply because they are easiest to find,” using the radial velocity method. Then you’ll see clusters found by the other methods ending with the big batch found by Kepler.

“This clustering shows that there are more Earth and super-Earth sized planets than any other,” said Osborn. “Hopefully we can begin to probe below it’s limit and into the Earth-like regime, where thousands more worlds should await!”

On reddit, Osborn also provided great, short explanations of the various methods used to detect planets, which we’ll include below:

Radial Velocity

Planets orbit thanks to gravitational attraction from their star’s mass. But the mass of the planet also has an effect on the star – pulling it around in a tiny circle once every orbit. Astronomers can split the light from a star up into it’s colours, which have an atomic barcode of absorption lines in. These lines shift position as the star moves – the light is effectively compressed to bluer colours when moving towards and pulled to redder colours when moving away.

So, by measuring this to-and-fro (radial) velocity, and finding periodic signals, astronomers can detect the tug of distant exoplanets.

Direct Imaging

This is easier to get your head around – point a big telescope at a star and directly image a planet around it. This only work for the biggest young planets as these are warmest, so glow brightest in the infra-red (like a red-hot piece of Iron). To find the planet in the glare of it’s star, the starlight needs to be suppressed. This is done by either blocking it out with a starshade, or digitally combining the images in such a way to remove the central star, revealing new exoplanets.


Einstein’s general theory of relativity shows that mass bends space time. This means that light can be bent by massive objects, and even act like a lens. Occasionally a star with a planetary system passes in front of a distant star. The light from the distant star is bent and lensed by both the star and the planet, giving two sharp increases in brightness over a few days – one for the star and one for the planet. The amount of lensing gives the mass of the planets, and the time between the events gives us the distance from their star. More info


When a planet crosses in front of it’s star, it blocks out a small portion of sunlight depending on it’s size. We only see the star as a single point, but we can infer the presence of a planet from the dip in light. When this repeats, we get a period. This is how we have found more than 1000 of the current crop of ~1800 exoplanets!

Thanks to Hugh Osborn for sharing his expertise with Universe Today!

Oldest Planetary System Discovered, Improving the Chances for Intelligent Life Everywhere

An artist rendition of Kepler-444 planetary system, which hosts five planets, all smaller than Earth. Credit: Tiago Campante, University of Birmingham, UK.

Using data from the Kepler space telescope, an international group of astronomers has discovered the oldest known planetary system in the galaxy – an 11 billion-year-old system of five rocky planets that are all smaller than Earth. The team says this discovery suggests that Earth-size planets have formed throughout most of the Universe’s 13.8-billion-year history, increasing the possibility for the existence of ancient life – and potentially advanced intelligent life — in our galaxy.

“The fact that rocky planets were already forming in the galaxy 11 billion years ago suggests that habitable Earth-like planets have probably been around for a very long time, much longer than the age of our Solar System,” said Dr. Travis Metcalfe, Senior Research Scientist Space Science Institute, who was part of the team that used the unique method of asteroseismology to determine the age of the star.

The star, named Kepler-444, is about 25 percent smaller than our Sun and is 117 light-years from Earth. The system of five known planets is very compact, and all five planets orbit the parent star in less than 10 days, or within 0:08 AU, roughly one-fifth the size of Mercury’s orbit.

“The star is slightly cooler than the Sun (around 5000 K at the surface, compared to 5800 K),” Metcalfe told Universe Today, “but the planets in this system are still expected to be highly irradiated and inhospitable to life,” with little to no atmospheres.

The team wrote in their paper that the system’s habitable zone lies 0:47 AU from the parent star and so all planets orbit well interior to the inner edge of Kepler-444’s ‘Goldilocks zone.’

The team was led by Tiago Campante, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

The planets were found by analyzing four years of Kepler data, as the spacecraft had nearly continuous observations of Kepler-444 during Kepler’s active mission. The space telescope took high-precision measurements of changes in brightness in stars in its field of view. There are tiny changes in brightness when planets pass in front of their stars.

Transit signals indicated five planets orbiting Kepler-444, although this star has a binary companion, an M-dwarf, and it was a tedious process to tease out all the data to determine what were planets and not other stars, as well as which star the planets were orbiting.

An image of the Kepler-444 star system using the NIRC2 near-infrared imager on the Keck II telescope. Credit: Tiago Campante et al.
An image of the Kepler-444 star system using the NIRC2 near-infrared imager on the Keck II telescope. Credit: Tiago Campante et al.

Metcalfe said the the job of “validating” the planets by ruling out all of the other possible “false positive” scenarios is always a big challenge for Kepler targets.

But asteroseismology was used to directly measure the precise age of the star. Asteroseismology, or stellar seismology is basically listening to a star by measuring sound waves. The sound waves travel into the star and bring information back up to the surface. The waves cause oscillations that Kepler observes as a rapid flickering of the star’s brightness.

How can this help determine a star’s age?

“As a star ages, it converts hydrogen into helium in the core,” Metcalfe said via email. “This changes the mean density of the star over time, and asteroseismology provides a very precise measure of the mean density (from the regular spacing of the individual oscillation frequencies).”

Metcalfe said that in this case, the uncertainty on the age of the star (and thus the planets, which formed essentially at the same time) is only 9%, compared to a typical uncertainty of 30-50% from other methods based on rotation (gyrochronology) or other properties of the star.

The team also noted in their paper that this finding may also help to pinpoint the beginning of the era of planet formation.

“I think this system has a lot to teach us about planet formation and the long-term evolution of planetary systems,” said Darin Ragozzine, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology and a a member of the discovery team, who specializes in multi-transiting systems. “With an age of 11.2 billion years, it means that this system formed near the beginning of the age of the Universe.”

The team wrote that this finding implies that small, Earth-size, planets may have readily formed at early epochs in the Universe’s history, even when metals were more scarce.

“By the time Earth formed, this star and its planetary system were already older than our planet is today,” Ragozzine told Universe Today. “We don’t know for sure if this system has stayed the same the whole time, but it is amazing to think that the little inner planet has gone around the star about a trillion times!”

To find out more about asteroseismology, check out a website called the Pale Blue Dot Project. Metcalfe launched a non-profit organization to help raise research funds for the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium. The Pale Blue Dot Project allows people to adopt a star to support asteroseismology, since there is no NASA funding for asteroseismology.

“Much of the expertise for this exists in Europe and not in the US, so as a cost saving measure NASA outsourced this particular research for the Kepler mission,” said Metcalfe, “and NASA can’t fund researchers in other countries.”

Metcalfe added that the “adopt a star” program supported the asteroseismic analysis of Kepler-444, “determining the precise age that makes this ancient planetary system so interesting… This private funding from citizens around the world has been an invaluable resource to facilitate our research and fuel amazing discoveries like this one.”

You can help this research by adopting one of the Kepler stars or planetary systems.

This research was published today in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team’s paper is titled, “An Ancient Extrasolar System with Five Sub-Earth-Size Planets.”

“Super Saturn” Has an Enormous Ring System and Maybe Even Exomoons

Artist's impression of a gigantic ring system around a distant exoplanet. Credit and ©: Ron Miller

Astronomers watching the repeated and drawn-out dimming of a relatively nearby Sun-like star have interpreted their observations to indicate an eclipse by a gigantic exoplanet’s complex ring system, similar to Saturn’s except much, much bigger. What’s more, apparent gaps and varying densities of the rings imply the presence of at least one large exomoon, and perhaps even more in the process of formation!

J1407 is a main-sequence orange dwarf star about 434 light-years away*. Over the course of 57 days in spring of 2007 J1407 underwent a “complex series of deep eclipses,” which an international team of astronomers asserts is the result of a ring system around the massive orbiting exoplanet J1407b.

“This planet is much larger than Jupiter or Saturn, and its ring system is roughly 200 times larger than Saturn’s rings are today,” said Eric Mamajek, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York. “You could think of it as kind of a super Saturn.”

The observations were made through the SuperWASP program, which uses ground-based telescopes to watch for the faint dimming of stars due to transiting exoplanets.

The first study of the eclipses and the likely presence of the ring system was published in 2012, led by Mamajek. Further analysis by the team estimates the number of main ring structures to be 37, with a large and clearly-defined gap located at about 0.4 AU (61 million km/37.9 million miles) out from the “super Saturn” that may harbor a satellite nearly as large as Earth, with an orbital period of two years.

Watch an animation of the team’s analysis of the J1407/J1407b eclipse below:

The entire expanse of J1407b’s surprisingly dense rings stretches for 180 million km (112 million miles), and could contain an Earth’s worth of mass.

“If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b,” said Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and lead author of the new study, “they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full Moon.”

Saturn's relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)
Saturn’s relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

These observations could be akin to a look back in time to see what Saturn and Jupiter were like as their own system of moons were first forming.

“The planetary science community has theorized for decades that planets like Jupiter and Saturn would have had, at an early stage, disks around them that then led to the formation of satellites,” according to Mamajek. “However, until we discovered this object in 2012, no one had seen such a ring system. This is the first snapshot of satellite formation on million-kilometer scales around a substellar object.”

J1407b itself is estimated to contain 10-40 times the mass of Jupiter – technically, it might even be a brown dwarf.

Further observations will be required to observe another transit of J1407b and obtain more data on its rings and other physical characteristics as its orbit is about ten Earth-years long. (Luckily 2017 isn’t that far off!)

The team’s report has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: University of Rochester. Image credit: Ron Miller.

Note: the originally published version of this article described J1407 at 116 light-years away. It’s actually 133 parsecs, which equates to about 434 light-years. Edited above. – JM

NASA Exoplanet “Travel Posters” Aim To Help With Space Trip Planning

A NASA "travel poster" touting the benefits of exoplanet Kepler-16b, which has two Suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What beauty, and what awesome travel slogans! NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a set of “Exoplanet Travel Posters” to bring you — at least in your imagination — to actual exoplanets.

Whether you have a fancy for skydiving, or doing astronomy with two Suns, it appears there is a spot to whet your imagination. We have another example of the fantastic artwork below.

You can download all three posters so far in glorious high-definition here. These are NASA’s descriptions for each of the worlds described so far:

Kepler-186f is the first Earth-size planet discovered in the potentially ‘habitable zone’ around another star, where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. Its star is much cooler and redder than our Sun. If plant life does exist on a planet like Kepler-186f, its photosynthesis could have been influenced by the star’s red-wavelength photons, making for a color palette that’s very different than the greens on Earth.

Twice as big in volume as the Earth, HD 40307g straddles the line between “Super-Earth” and “mini-Neptune” and scientists aren’t sure if it has a rocky surface or one that’s buried beneath thick layers of gas and ice. One thing is certain though: at eight time the Earth’s mass, its gravitational pull is much, much stronger.

A NASA "travel poster" showing off how fun skydiving would be on HD 40307g, a planet that is somewhere in size between a "super-Earth" or "mini-Neptune." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A NASA “travel poster” showing off how fun skydiving would be on HD 40307g, a planet that is somewhere in size between a “super-Earth” or “mini-Neptune.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Like Luke Skywalker’s planet “Tatooine” in Star Wars, Kepler-16b orbits a pair of stars. Depicted here as a terrestrial planet, Kepler-16b might also be a gas giant like Saturn. Prospects for life on this unusual world aren’t good, as it has a temperature similar to that of dry ice. But the discovery indicates that the movie’s iconic double-sunset is anything but science fiction.

The posters are not only clever, but appear to be homages to the Work Projects Administration’s “See America” posters of the 1930s and 1940s, which you can browse through on the Library of Congress’ website.