This Exoplanet Has Prematurely Aged its Star

An exoplanet about ten times Jupiter's mass located some 330 light years from Earth. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/I.Pillitteri et al; Optical: DSS; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Hot young stars are wildly active, emitting huge eruptions of charged particles form their surfaces. But as they age they naturally become less active, their X-ray emission weakens and their rotation slows.

Astronomers have theorized that a hot Jupiter — a sizzling gas giant circling close to its host star — might be able to sustain a young star’s activity, ultimately prolonging its youth. Earlier this year, two astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics tested this hypothesis and found it true.

But now, observations of a different system show the opposite effect: a planet that’s causing its star to age much more quickly.

The planet, WASP-18b has a mass roughly 10 times Jupiter’s and circles its host star in less than 23 hours. So it’s not exactly a classic hot Jupiter — a sizzling gas giant whipping around its host star — because it’s characteristics are a little more drastic.

“WASP-18b is an extreme exoplanet,” said lead author Ignazio Pillitteri of the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy, in a news release. “It is one of the most massive hot Jupiters known and one of the closest to its host star, and these characteristics lead to unexpected behavior.”

The team thinks WASP-18 is 600 million years old, relatively young compared to our 5-billion-year-old Sun. But when Pillitteri and colleagues took a long look with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory at the star, they didn’t see any X-rays — a telltale sign the star is youthful. In fact, the observations show the star is 100 times less active than it should be.

“We think the planet is aging the star by wreaking havoc on its innards,” said co-author Scott Wolk (who also worked on the previous study showing the opposite effect) from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The researchers argue that tidal forces created by the gravitational pull of the massive planet might have disrupted the star’s magnetic field generated by the motion of conductive plasma deep inside the star. It’s possible the exoplanet significantly interfered with the upper layers of the convective zone, reduced any mixing of stellar material, and effectively canceled out the magnetic activity.

The effect of tidal forces from the planet may also explain an unusually high amount of lithium seen in the star. Lithium is usually abundant in younger stars, but disappears over time as convection carries it further toward the star’s center, where it’s destroyed by nuclear reactions. So if there’s less convection — as seems to be the case for WASP 18 — then the lithium won’t circulate toward the center of the star and instead will survive.

The findings have been published in the July issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics and are available online.

Wow! Water Ice Clouds Suspected In Brown Dwarf Beyond The Solar System

Artist's conception of brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5, which may host water ice clouds in its atmosphere. Credit: Rob Gizis (CUNY BMCC / YouTube (screenshot)

What are planetary atmospheres made of? Figuring out the answer to that question is a big step on the road to learning about habitability, assuming that life tends to flourish in atmospheres like our own.

While there is a debate about how indicative the presence of, say, oxygen or water is of life on Earth-like planets, astronomers do agree more study is required to learn about the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system.

Which is why this latest find is so exciting — one astronomy team says it may have spotted water ice clouds in a brown dwarf (an object between the size of a planet and a star) that is relatively close to our solar system. The find is tentative and also in an object that likely does not host life, but it’s hoped that telescopes may get better at examining atmospheres in the future.

The object is called WISE J085510.83-071442.5, or W0855 for short. It’s the coldest brown dwarf ever detected, with an average temperature between 225 degrees Kelvin (-55 Fahrenheit, or -48 Celsius) and 265 Kelvin (17 Fahrenheit, or -8 Celsius.) It’s believed to be about three to 10 times the mass of Jupiter.

Astronomers looked at W0855 with an infrared mosaic imager on the 6.5-meter Magellan Baade telescope, which is located at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The team obtained 151 images across three nights in May 2014.

Astronomers plotted the brown dwarf on a color-magnitude chart, which is a variant of famous Hertzsprung-Russell diagram used to learn more about stars by comparing their absolute magnitude against their spectral types. “Color-Magnitude diagrams are a tool for investigating atmospheric properties of the brown dwarf population as well as testing model predictions,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Based on previous work on brown dwarf atmospheres, the team plotted W0855 and modelled it, discovering it fell into a range that made water ice clouds possible. It should be noted here that water ice is known to exist in all four gas giants of our own Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

“Non-equilibrium chemistry or non-solar metallicity may change predictions,” the authors cautioned in their paper. “However, using currently available model approaches, this is the first candidate outside our own solar system to have direct evidence for water clouds.”

The research, led by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Jacqueline Faherty, was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. A preprint version of the paper is available on Arxiv.

Source: Carnegie Institution for Science

‘Venus Zone’: The Anti-Habitable Area Around A Star That Can Breed Hell

A radar view of Venus taken by the Magellan spacecraft, with some gaps filled in by the Pioneer Venus orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

Our hothouse planet of the solar system, Venus, is possibly a product of how close it is to the Sun, new research reveals. The team who have come up with a definition of a “Venus zone” around stars, saying that knowing where this area is could help pin down other areas that are more habitable for potential life.

“We believe the Earth and Venus had similar starts in terms of their atmospheric evolution,” stated lead author Stephen Kane, an astronomer at San Francisco State University. “Something changed at one point, and the obvious difference between the two is proximity to the Sun.”

The habitable region around a star is poorly understood because scientists don’t quite know what conditions are necessary for life. It usually refers to the area where liquid water is possible, although this also depends on the climate of the planet itself. Clouds, terrain and atmospheric composition are just some of the variables that could affect habitability.

Artist’s impression of a massive asteroid belt in orbit around a star. Credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC)
Artist’s impression of a massive asteroid belt in orbit around a star. Credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC)

To better figure out where potential Venus-like exoplanets lurk, Kane’s team used data from the planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope and examined solar flux — or how much solar energy a planet gets — to figure out where the Venus zone would be. The zone is then defined between two regions: where a planet could have the “runaway greenhouse effect” seen on Venus, and the spot where the planet is so close to its star that energy would wear away its atmosphere.

The first step would be pinpointing which planets reside within these zones. In future decades, astronomers could then examine the planetary atmospheres with telescopes to learn more about how they are composed — and how similar they are to Earth or Venus. Meanwhile, Kane’s team plans to model if carbon in the planet’s atmosphere could affect the boundaries of the zone.

“If we find all of these planets in the Venus Zone have a runaway greenhouse-gas effect, then we know that the distance a planet is from its star is a major determining factor,” Kane stated. “That’s helpful to understanding the history between Venus and Earth.”

A preprint version of the paper is available on the Arxiv website. The research has been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: San Francisco State University

One Planet, Two Stars: A System More Common Than Previously Thought

An artist's conception of a circumbinary planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

There are few environments more hostile than a planet circling two stars. Powerful tidal forces from the stars can easily destroy the rocky building blocks of planets or grind a newly formed planet to dust. But astronomers have spotted a handful of these hostile worlds.

A new study is even suggesting that these extreme systems exist in abundance, with roughly half of all exoplanets orbiting binary stars.

NASA’s crippled Kepler space telescope is arguably the world’s most successful planet hunter, despite the sudden end to its main mission last May. For nearly four years, Kepler continuously monitored 150,000 stars searching for tiny dips in their light when planets crossed in front of them.

As of today, astronomers have confirmed nearly 1,500 exoplanets using Kepler data alone. But Kepler’s database is immense. And according to the exoplanet archive there are over 7,000 “Kepler Objects of Interest,” dubbed KOIs, that might also be exoplanets.

There are a seeming endless number of questions waiting to be answered. But one stands out: how many exoplanets circle two stars? Binary stars have long been known to be commonplace — about half of the stars in the Milky Way are thought to exist in binary systems.

A team of astronomers, led by Elliott Horch from Southern Connecticut State University, has shown that stars with exoplanets are just as likely to have a binary companion. In other words, 40 to 50 percent of the host stars are actually binary stars.

“It’s interesting and exciting that exoplanet systems with stellar companions turn out to be much more common than was believed even just a few years ago,” said Horch in a news release.

The research team made use of the latest technology, speckle imaging, to take a second look at KOI stars and search for any companion stars. In using this technique, astronomers obtain rapid images of a small portion of the sky surrounding the star. They then combine the images using a complex set of algorithms, which yields a final picture with a resolution better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Speckle imaging allows astronomers to detect companion stars that are up to 125 times fainter than the target, but only a small distance away (36,000 times smaller than the full Moon). For the majority of Kepler stars, this equates to finding a companion within 100 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth.

The team was surprised to find that roughly half of their targets had companion stars.

“An interesting consequence of this finding is that in the half of the exoplanet host stars that are binary we can not, in general, say which star in the system the planet actually orbits,” said coauthor Steve B. Howell from the NASA Ames Research Center.

The new findings, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, further advance our need to understand these exotic systems and the harrowing environments they face.

Astronomers Spot Pebble-Size Dust Grains in the Orion Nebula

Radio/optical composite of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex showing the OMC-2/3 star-forming filament. GBT data is shown in orange. Uncommonly large dust grains there may kick-start planet formation. Credit: S. Schnee, et al.; B. Saxton, B. Kent (NRAO/AUI/NSF); We acknowledge the use of NASA's SkyView Facility located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Stars and planets form out of vast clouds of dust and gas. Small pockets in these clouds collapse under the pull of gravity. But as the pocket shrinks, it spins rapidly, with the outer region flattening into a disk.

Eventually the central pocket collapses enough that its high temperature and density allows it to ignite nuclear fusion, while in the turbulent disk, microscopic bits of dust glob together to form planets. Theories predict that a typical dust grain is similar in size to fine soot or sand.

In recent years, however, millimeter-size dust grains — 100 to 1,000 times larger than the dust grains expected — have been spotted around a few select stars and brown dwarfs, suggesting that these particles may be more abundant than previous thought. Now, observations of the Orion nebula show a new object that may also be brimming with these pebble-size grains.

The team used the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope to observe the northern portion of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a star-forming region that spans hundreds of light-years. It contains long, dust-rich filaments, which are dotted with many dense cores. Some of the cores are just starting to coalesce, while others have already begun to form protostars.

Based on previous observations from the IRAM 30-meter radio telescope in Spain, the team expected to find a particular brightness to the dust emission. Instead, they found that it was much brighter.

“This means that the material in this region has different properties than would be expected for normal interstellar dust,” said Scott Schnee, from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in a press release. “In particular, since the particles are more efficient than expected at emitting at millimeter wavelengths, the grains are very likely to be at least a millimeter, and possibly as large as a centimeter across, or roughly the size of a small Lego-style building block.”

Such massive dust grains are hard to explain in any environment.

Around a star or a brown dwarf, it’s expected that drag forces cause large particles to lose kinetic energy and spiral in toward the star. This process should be relatively fast, but since planets are fairly common, many astronomers have put forth theories to explain how dust hangs around long enough to form planets. One such theory is the so-called dust trap: a mechanism that herds together large grains, keeping them from spiraling inward.

But these dust particles occur in a rather different environment. So the researchers propose two new intriguing theories for their origin.

The first is that the filaments themselves helped the dust grow to such colossal proportions. These regions, compared to molecular clouds in general, have lower temperatures, high densities, and lower velocities — all of which encourage grain growth.

The second is that the rocky particles originally grew inside a previous generation of cores or even protoplanetary disks. The material then escaped back into the surrounding molecular cloud.

This finding further challenges theories of how rocky, Earth-like planets form, suggesting that millimeter-size dust grains may jump-start planet formation and cause rocky planets to be much more common than previously thought.

The paper has been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

This Robotic Laser System On A Telescope Is Looking At Alien Planets

Still from a timelapse video showing the Robo-AO laser originating from the Palomar 1.5-meter Telescope dome. The laser is not visible to human eyes, but do show up in digital cameras if their UV blocking filters are removed. Credit: Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii / YouTube (screenshot)

There’s a group of people probing exoplanets with a laser robot, and the results are showing a few surprises. Specifically, a survey of “hot Jupiters” — the huge gas giants in tight orbits around their parent stars — shows that they are more than three times likely to be found in double star systems than other kinds of exoplanets.

The robotic laser adaptive optics system, which is installed on California’s Palomar Observatory’s 1.5-meter telescope, also discovered double star systems that each have their own planetary systems, rather than sharing one.

“We’re using Robo-AO’s extreme efficiency to survey in exquisite detail all of the candidate exoplanet host stars that have been discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission,” stated Christoph Baranec, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy who led a paper on Robo-AO results.

“While Kepler has an unrivaled ability to discover exoplanets that pass between us and their host star, it comes at the price of reduced image quality, and that’s where Robo-AO excels.”

Lasers and adaptive optics are commonly used to account for changes in the atmosphere. A computer system helps the mirror change shape as the atmosphere swirls, providing clearer images for astronomers.

The Robo-AO survey cited looked at 715 candidate exoplanet systems that were first tracked down by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The team is now planning to tackle the rest of the 4,000 Kepler planet candidate hosts.

Results from Robo-AO have been published in The Astrophysical Journal, here and here. You can also see a preprint version of one of these journal articles here.

Source: Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

Companion Planet Could Keep Alien Earths Warm In Old Age: Study

An artist's concept of a rocky world orbiting a red dwarf star. (Credit: NASA/D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian center for Astrophysics).

People are generally social creatures, and in the case of planets that generally is the case as well. Many of these alien worlds we have discovered are in groups of two or more around their parent star or stars. A new study, however, goes a step further and says that a companion planet could actually save another planet in its old age.

“Planets cool as they age. Over time their molten cores solidify and inner heat-generating activity dwindles, becoming less able to keep the world habitable by regulating carbon dioxide to prevent runaway heating or cooling,” the University of Washington stated.

“But astronomers … have found that for certain planets about the size of our own, the gravitational pull of an outer companion planet could generate enough heat — through a process called tidal heating — to effectively prevent that internal cooling, and extend the inner world’s chance at hosting life.”

The researchers ran computer models finding that tidal heating, which is known to happen on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Io, can also happen in planets the size of Earth that are in non-circular orbits around dwarf stars. An outer planet would keep the orbit from stabilizing in a circle, generating tidal heating and keeping conditions potentially warm enough for life.

The study, led by the University of Arizona’s Christa Van Laerhoven, will be available in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available now in preprint version on Arxiv.

Hubble Finds 3 (Relatively) Dry Exoplanets, Raising Questions About Water Outside The Solar System

Artist's conception of gas giant planet HD 209458b in the constellation Pegasus, which has less water vapor in its atmosphere than expected. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon (STScI) and N. Madhusudhan (UC)

Surprise! Three planets believed to be good candidates for having water vapor in their atmosphere actually have much lower quantities than expected.

The planets (HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b) are “hot Jupiters” that are orbiting very close to their parent star, at a distance where it was expected the extreme temperatures would turn water into a vapor that could be seen from afar.

But observations of the planets with the Hubble Space Telescope, who have temperatures between 816 and 2,204 degrees Celsius (1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit), show only a tenth to a thousandth of the water astronomers expected.

“Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside our solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we’ve found water in an exoplanet,” stated Nikku Madhusudhan, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, England who led the research. “However, the low water abundance we have found so far is quite astonishing.”

This finding, if confirmed by other observations, could force exoplanet formation theory to be revised and could even have implications for how much water is available in so-called “super-Earths”, rocky planets that are somewhat larger than our own, the astronomers said.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

That theory states that planets form over time as small dust particles stick to each other and grow into larger bodies. As it becomes a planet and takes on an atmosphere from surrounding gas bits, it’s believed that those elements should be “enhanced” in proportion to its star, especially in the case of oxygen. That oxygen in turn should be filled with water.

“We should be prepared for much lower water abundances than predicted when looking at super-Earths (rocky planets that are several times the mass of Earth),” Madhusudhan stated.

The research will be published today (July 24) in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA

First Exoplanet Discovered Beyond the “Snow Line”

This artist's conception shows the Uranus-sized exoplanet Kepler-421b, which orbits an orange, type K star about 1,000 light-years from Earth. Kepler-421b is the transiting exoplanet with the longest known year, circling its star once every 704 days. It is located beyond the "snow line" – the dividing line between rocky and gaseous planets – and might have formed in place rather than migrating from a different orbit. David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Data from NASA’s crippled Kepler space telescope has unleashed a windfall of hot Jupiters — sizzling gas giants that circle their host star within days — and only a handful of Earth-like planets. A quick analysis might make it seem as though hot Jupiters are far more common than their smaller and more distant counterparts.

But in large surveys, astronomers have to be careful of the observational biases introduced into their data. Kepler, for example, mainly finds broiling furnace worlds close to their host stars. These are easier to spot than small exoplanets that take hundreds of days to transit.

New data, however, shows a transiting exoplanet, Kepler-421b, with the longest known year, clocking in at 704 days.

“Finding Kepler-421b was a stroke of luck,” said lead author David Kipping from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a press release. “The farther a planet is from its star, the less likely it is to transit the star from Earth’s point of view. It has to line up just right.”

Kepler-416b's folded light curve. Image Credit:
Kepler-421b’s folded light curve. Blue points are data from the first transit observed, and red points are the second transit.  Image Credit: Kipping et al.

Kepler-421b is roughly 4 times Earth’s girth and at least 60 times Earth’s mass. It circles its host star at about 1.2 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. But because its host star is much smaller than our Sun, this places its orbit beyond the snow line — the dividing line between rocky and gas planets.

On Earth, snow lines typically form at high elevations where falling temperatures turn atmospheric moisture to snow. Similarly, in planetary systems, snow lines are thought to form in the distant, colder reaches of the stars’ disk.

Depending on the distance from the star, however, other more exotic molecules — such as carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide — can freeze and turn to snow. This forms a frost on dust grains: the building blocks of planets and comets.

“The snow line is a crucial distance in planet formation theory. We think all gas giants must have formed beyond this distance,” said Kipping.

The fact that this gas giant is still beyond this distance, roughly 4 billion years after formation, suggests that it’s the first non-migrating gas giant in a transiting system found.

Astronomers currently think gas giants form by small rocky cores that glom together until the body is massive enough to accrete a gaseous envelope. As they grow, they migrate inward, sometimes moving as close to their host star as Mercury is to the Sun.

Kepler-421b may be the first exoplanet discovered to have formed in situ. But further observations, especially those of its atmosphere, will help shed light on its formation history. Unfortunately given its long year, it won’t transit again until February, 2016.

The research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

Distant Stellar Atmospheres Shed Light on How Jupiter-like Planets Form

Interior of Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA / R. J. Hall

It’s likely that Jupiter-like planets’ origins root back to either the rapid collapse of a dense cloud or small rocky cores that glom together until the body is massive enough to accrete a gaseous envelope.

Although these two competing theories are both viable, astronomers have, for the first time, seen the latter “core accretion” theory in action. By studying the exoplanet’s host star they’ve shed light on the composition of the planet’s rocky core.

“Our results show that the formation of giant planets, as well as terrestrial planets like our own Earth, leaves subtle signatures in stellar atmospheres”, said lead author and PhD student Marcelo Tucci Maia from University of São Paulo, Brazil, in a press release.

Maia and colleagues pointed the 3.5-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope toward the constellation Cygnus, in order to take a closer look at two Sun-like stars in the distant 16 Cyg triple-star system. Both stars, having formed together from the same gaseous disk over 10 billion years ago and having reached the same mass, are nearly solar twins.

But only one star, 16 Cygni B, hosts a giant planet. By decomposing the light from the two stars into their wavelengths and looking at the difference between the two stars, the team was able to detect signatures left from the planet formation process on 16 Cygni B.

It’s the perfect laboratory to study the formation of giant planets.

Difference in chemical composition between the stars 16 Cyg A and 16 Cyg B, versus the condensation temperature of the elements in the proto-planetary nebula. If the stars had identical chemical compositions then the difference (A-B) would be zero. The star 16 Cyg A is richer in all elements relative to star 16 Cyg B. In other words, star 16 Cyg B, the host star of a giant planet, is deficient in all chemical elements, especially in the refractory elements (those with high condensation temperatures and that form dust grains more easily), suggesting evidence of a rocky core in the giant planet 16 Cyg Bb. Credits: M. Tucci Maia, J. Meléndez, I. Ramírez.
Difference in chemical composition between the stars 16 Cyg A and 16 Cyg B, versus the condensation temperature of the elements in the proto-planetary nebula. Image Credit: M. Tucci Maia, J. Meléndez, I. Ramírez.

Maia and colleagues found that the star 16 Cygni A is enhanced in all chemical elements relative to 16 Cygni B. Hence, the metals removed from 16 Cygni B were most likely removed from the protoplanetary disk in order to form the planet.

On top of the overall deficiency in all elements, 16 Cygni B has an added deficiency in the refractory elements — those with high condensation temperatures that form dust grains more easily — such as iron, aluminum, nickel, magnesium, scandium, and silicon. This helps verify what astronomers have expected all along: rocky cores are rich in refractory elements.

The team was able to decipher that these missing elements likely created a rocky core with a mass of about 1.5 to 6 Earth masses, which is similar to the estimate of Jupiter’s core.

“16 Cyg is a remarkable system, but certainly not unique,” said coauthor Ivan Ramírez from the University of Texas. “It is special because it is nearby; however, there are many other binary stars with twin components on which this experiment could be performed. This could help us find planet-host stars in binaries in a much more straightforward manner compared to all other planet-finding techniques we have available today.”

The results were accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.