New Technique Puts Exoplanets on the Scale

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

Astronomers constantly probe the skies for the unexpected. They search for unforeseen bumps in their data — signaling an unknown planet orbiting a star, a new class of astronomical objects or even a new set of physical laws that will rewrite the old ones. They are willing to embrace new ideas that may replace the wisdom of years past.

But there’s one exception to the rule: the search for Earth 2.0. Here we don’t want to find the unexpected, but the expected. We want to find a planet so similar to our own, we can almost call it home.

While, we can’t exactly image these planets with great enough detail to see if one’s a water world with luscious green plants and civilizations, we can use indirect methods to find an “Earth-like” planet — a planet with a similar mass and radius to the Earth.

There’s only one problem: the current techniques to measure an exoplanet’s mass are limited. To date astronomers measure radial velocity — tiny wobbles in a star’s orbit as it’s tugged by the gravitational pull of its exoplanet — to derive the planet-to-star mass ratio.

But given that most exoplanets are detected via their transit signal — dips in light as a planet passes in front of its host star — wouldn’t it be great if we could measure its mass based on this method alone? Well, astronomers at MIT have found a way.

Graduate student Julien de Wit and MacArthur Fellow Sara Seager have developed a new technique for determining mass by using an exoplanet’s transit signal alone. When a planet transits, the star’s light passes through a thin layer of the planet’s atmosphere, which absorbs certain wavelengths of the star’s light. Once the starlight reaches Earth it will be imprinted with the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s composition.

The so-called transmission spectrum allows astronomers to study the atmospheres of these alien worlds.

But here’s the key: a more massive planet can hold on to a thicker atmosphere. So in theory, a planet’s mass could be measured based on the atmosphere, or the transmission spectrum alone.

Of course there isn’t a one to one correlation or we would have figured this out long ago. The atmosphere’s extent also depends on its temperature and the weight of its molecules. Hydrogen is so light it slips away from an atmosphere more easily than, say, oxygen.

So de Wit worked from a standard equation describing scale height — the vertical distance over which the pressure of an atmosphere decreases. The extent to which pressure drops off depends on the planet’s temperature, the planet’s gravitational force (a.k.a. mass) and the atmosphere’s density.

According to basic algebra: knowing any three of these parameters will let us solve for the fourth. Therefore the planet’s gravitational force, or mass, can be derived from its atmospheric temperature, pressure profile and density — parameters that may be obtained in a transmission spectrum alone.

With the theoretical work behind them, de Wit and Seager used the hot Jupiter HD 189733b, with an already well-established mass, as a case study. Their calculations revealed the same mass measurement (1.15 times the mass of Jupiter) as that obtained by radial velocity measurements.

This new technique will be able to characterize the mass of exoplanets based on their transit data alone. While hot Jupiters remain the main target for the new technique, de Wit and Seager aim to describe Earth-like planets in the near future. With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for 2018, astronomers should be able to obtain the mass of much smaller worlds.

The paper has been published in Science Magazine and is now available for download in a much longer form here.

High Potential for Life Circling Alpha Centauri B, our Nearest Neighbor

Image Credit: NASA

While exoplanets make the news on an almost daily basis, one of the biggest announcements occurred in 2012 when astronomers claimed the discovery of an Earth-like planet circling our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri B, a mere 4.3 light-years away. That’s almost close enough to touch.

Of course such a discovery has led to a heated debate over the last three years. While most astronomers remain skeptical of this planet’s presence and astronomers continue to study this system, computer simulations from 2008 actually showed the possibility of 11 Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B.

Now, recent research suggests that five of these computer-simulated planets have a high potential for photosynthetic life.

The 2008 study calculated the likely number of planets around Alpha Centauri B by assuming an initial protoplanetary disk populated with 400 – 900 rocks, or protoplanets, roughly the size of the Moon. They then tracked the disk over the course of 200 million years through n-body simulations — models of how objects gravitationally interact with one another over time — in order to determine the total number of planets that would form from the disk.

While the number and type of exoplanets depended heavily on the initial conditions given to the protoplanetary disk, the eight computer simulations predicted the formation of 21 planets, 11 of which resided within the habitable zone of the star.

A second team of astronomers, led by Dr. Antolin Gonzalez of the Universidad Central de Las Villas in Cuba, took these computer simulations one step further by assessing the likelihood these planets are habitable or even contain photosynthetic life.

The team used multiple measures that asses the potential for life. The Earth Similarity index “is a multi-parameter first assessment of Earth-likeness for extrasolar planets,” Dr. Gonzalez told Universe Today. It predicts (on a scale from zero to one with zero meaning no similarity and one being identical to Earth) how Earth-like a planet is based on its surface temperature, escape velocity, mean radius and bulk density.

Planets with an Earth Similar index from 0.8 – 1 are considered capable of hosting life similar to Earth’s. As an example Mars has an Earth Similar index in the range of 0.6 – 0.8. It is thus too low to support life today.

However, the Earth Similarity index alone is not an objective measure of habitability, Gonzalez said. It assumes the Earth is the only planet capable of supporting life. The team also relied on the P model for biological productivity, which takes into account the planet’s surface temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide present.

At this point in time “there is no way to predict, at least approximately, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide with the known data, or the variations from a planet to another,” Gonzalez said. Instead “we assumed a constant partial pressure of carbon dioxide for all planets simplifying the model to a function of temperature.”

Gonzalez’s team found that of the 11 computer-simulated planets in the habitable zone, five planets are prone for photosynthetic life. Their Earth Similarity index values are 0.92, 0.93, 0.87, 0.91 and 0.86. If we take into account their corresponding P model values we find that two of them have better conditions than Earth for life.

According to this highly theoretical paper: if there are planets circling our nearest neighbor, they’re likely to be teeming with life. It’s important to note that while these indexes may prove to be very valuable years down the road (when we have a handful of Earth-like planets to study), we are currently only looking for life as we know it.

The paper has been published in the Cuban journal: Revista Cubana de Fisica and is available for download here. For more information on Alpha Centauri Bb please read a paper available here published in the Astrophysical Journal.

‘Wobbly’ Alien Planet Has Weird Seasons And Orbits Two Stars

Diagram of Kepler-413b's unusual orbit around red and orange dwarf stars. Its orbit "wobbles" or precesses around the stars every 11 years. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

We’re lucky to live on a planet where it’s predictably warmer in the summer and colder in the winter in many regions, at least within a certain range. On Kepler-413b, it’s a world where you’d have to check the forecast more frequently, because its axis swings by a wild 30 degrees every 11 years. On Earth, by comparison, it takes 26,000 years to tilt by a somewhat lesser amount (23.5 degrees).

The exoplanet, which is 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, orbits two dwarf stars — an orange one and a red one — every 66 days. While it would be fun to imagine a weather forecast on this planet, in reality it’s likely too hot for life (it’s close to its parent stars) and also huge, at 65 Earth-masses or a “super-Neptune.”

What’s even weirder is how hard it was to characterize the planet. Normally, astronomers spot these worlds either by watching them go across the face of their parent star(s), or by the gravitational wobbles they induce in those stars. The orbit, however, is tilted 2.5 degrees to the stars, which makes the transits far more unpredictable. It took several years of Kepler space telescope data to find a pattern.

“What we see in the Kepler data over 1,500 days is three transits in the first 180 days (one transit every 66 days), then we had 800 days with no transits at all,” stated Veselin Kostov, the principal investigator on the observation. “After that, we saw five more transits in a row,” added Kostov, who works both with the  the Space Telescope Science Institute and  Johns Hopkins University  in Baltimore, Md.

It will be an astounding six years until the next transit happens in 2020, partly because of that wobble and partly because the stars have small diameters and aren’t exactly “edge-on” to our view from Earth. As for why this planet is behaving the way it does, no one is sure. Maybe other planets are messing with the orbit, or a third star is doing the same thing.

The next major question, the astronomers added, is if there are other planets out there like this that we just can’t see because of the gap between transit periods.

You can read more about this finding in The Astrophysical Journal (a Jan. 29 publication that doesn’t appear to be on the website yet) or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

Super-Earths Could Be More ‘Superhabitable’ Than Planets Like Ours

Artists impression of a Super-Earth, a class of planet that has many times the mass of Earth, but less than a Uranus or Neptune-sized planet. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Alien planets that are slightly bigger than Earth could be more life-friendly than exoplanets closer to our own size, a new study implies. These so-called “super-Earths” that are about two to three times that of our own planet could be “superhabitable” — implying that our own planet is a rare bird indeed when it comes to being good for life.

Bigger rocky planets would have a host of advantages, argue McMaster University’s Rene Heller and Weber State University’s John Armstrong in a paper recently published in Astrobiology. Among them: These worlds would have tectonic activity that takes longer to happen, meaning that the conditions would be more stable for life. Also, a bigger mass implies it’s easier to hang on to a thick atmosphere and to have “enhanced magnetic shielding” to hold a planet’s own against solar flares.

“Our argumentation can be understood as a refutation of the Rare Earth hypothesis. Ward and Brownlee (2000) claimed that the emergence of life required an extremely unlikely interplay of conditions on Earth, and they concluded that complex life would be a very unlikely phenomenon in the Universe,” stated the authors in their paper “Superhabitable Worlds.”

Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory/University of Puerto Rico/Arecibo
Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Information about Alpha Centauri Bb. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory/University of Puerto Rico/Arecibo

“While we agree that the occurrence of another truly Earth-like planet is trivially impossible, we hold that this argument does not constrain the emergence of other inhabited planets. We argue here in the opposite direction and claim that Earth could turn out to be a marginally habitable world. In our view, a variety of processes exists that can make environmental conditions on a planet or moon more benign to life than is the case on Earth.”

As a start, the scientists suggest looking at the Alpha Centauri system, where researchers in 2012 discovered a planet close to Earth’s size that is likely not habitable because it orbits so close to its sun.

The star system, however, is about the right age and has low enough radiation to allow life to occur on a planet or moon that “evolved similarly as it did on Earth”, providing the planet or moon “had the chance to collect water from comets and planetesimals beyond the snowline.” Further, it’s just four light-years from Earth, making it a good target for telescopic observations.

You can read more details of their research in Astrobiology or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Young Planets Migrated In Double-Star Systems, Model Shows

Artist's conception of Kepler 34b, which orbits two stars. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Binary star systems are downright dangerous due to their complex gravitational interactions that can easily grind a planet to pieces. So how is it that we have found a few planets in these Tattooine-like environments?

Research led by the University of Bristol show that most planets formed far away from their central stars and then migrated in at some point in their history, according to research collected concerning Kepler-34b and other exoplanets.

The scientists did “computer simulations of the early stages of planet formation around the binary stars using a sophisticated model that calculates the effect of gravity and physical collisions on and between one million planetary building blocks,” stated the university.

“They found that the majority of these planets must have formed much further away from the central binary stars and then migrated to their current location.”

You can read more about the research in Astrophysical Journal Letters. It was led by Bristol graduate student Stefan Lines with participation from advanced research fellow and computational astrophysicst Zoe Lienhardt, among other collaborators.

Behind the Scenes: The “Making Of” the First Brown Dwarf Surface Map

Two views of the first brown dwarf map
Two views of the brown dwarf map for Luhman 16B. Image credit: ESO/I. Crossfield

By now, you will probably have heard that astronomers have produced the first global weather map for a brown dwarf. (If you haven’t, you can find the story here.) May be you’ve even built the cube model or the origami balloon model of the surface of the brown dwarf Luhman 16B the researchers provided (here).

Since one of my hats is that of public information officer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, where most of the map-making took place, I was involved in writing a press release about the result. But one aspect that I found particularly interesting didn’t get much coverage there. It’s that this particular bit of research is a good example of how fast-paced astronomy can be these days, and, more generally, it shows how astronomical research works. So here’s a behind-the-scenes look – a making-of, if you will – for the first brown dwarf surface map (see image on the right).

As in other sciences, if you want to be a successful astronomer, you need to do something new, and go beyond what’s been done before. That, after all, is what publishable new results are all about. Sometimes, such progress is driven by larger telescopes and more sensitive instruments becoming available. Sometimes, it’s about effort and patience, such as surveying a large number of objects and drawing conclusion from the data you’ve won.

Ingenuity plays a significant role. Think of the telescopes, instruments and analytical methods developed by astronomers as the tools in a constantly growing tool box. One way of obtaining new results is to combine these tools in new ways, or to apply them to new objects.

That’s why our opening scene is nothing special in astronomy: It shows Ian Crossfield, a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and a number of colleagues (including institute director Thomas Henning) in early March 2013, discussing the possibility of applying one particular method of mapping stellar surfaces to a class of objects that had never been mapped in this way before.

The method is called Doppler imaging. It makes use of the fact that light from a rotating star is slightly shifted in frequency as the star rotates. As different parts of the stellar surfaces go by, whisked around by the star’s rotation, the frequency shifts vary slightly different depending on where the light-emitting region is located on the star. From these systematic variations, an approximate map of the stellar surface can be reconstructed, showing darker and brighter areas. Stars are much too distant for even the largest current telescopes to discern surface details, but in this way, a surface map can be reconstructed indirectly.

The method itself isn’t new. The basic concept was invented in the late 1950s, and the 1980s saw several applications to bright, slowly rotating stars, with astronomers using Doppler imaging to map those stars’ spots (dark patches on a stellar surface; the stellar analogue to Sun spots).

Crossfield and his colleagues were wondering: Could this method be applied to a brown dwarf – an intermediary between planet and star, more massive than a planet, but with insufficient mass for nuclear fusion to ignite in the object’s core, turning it into a star? Sadly, some quick calculations, taking into account what current telescopes and instruments can and cannot do as well as the properties of known brown dwarfs, showed that it wouldn’t work.

The available targets were too faint, and Doppler imaging needs lots of light: for one because you need to split the available light into the myriad colors of a spectrum, and also because you need to take many different rather short measurements – after all, you need to monitor how the subtle frequency shifts caused by the Doppler effect change over time.

So far, so ordinary. Most discussions of how to make observations of a completely new type probably come to the conclusion that it cannot be done – or cannot be done yet. But in this case, another driver of astronomical progress made an appearance: The discovery of new objects.

Artist's impression of the WISE satellite
Kevin Luhman discovered the brown dwarf pair in data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE; artist’s impression). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On March 11, Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Penn State University, announced a momentous discovery: Using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), he had identified a system of two brown dwarfs orbiting each other. Remarkably, this system was at a distance of a mere 6.5 light-years from Earth. Only the Alpha Centauri star system and Barnard’s star are closer to Earth than that. In fact, Barnard’s star was the last time an object was discovered to be that close to our Solar system – and that discovery was made in 1916.

Modern astronomers are not known for coming up with snappy names, and the new object, which was designated WISE J104915.57-531906.1, was no exception. To be fair, this is not meant to be a real name; it’s a combination of the discovery instrument WISE with the system’s coordinates in the sky. Later, the alternative designation “Luhman 16AB” for the system was proposed, as this was the 16th binary system discovered by Kevin Luhman, with A and B denoting the binary system’s two components.

These days, the Internet gives the astronomical community immediate access to new discoveries as soon as they are announced. Many, probably most astronomers begin their working day by browsing recent submissions to astro-ph, the astrophysical section of the arXiv, an international repository of scientific papers. With a few exceptions – some journals insist on exclusive publication rights for at least a while –, this is where, in most cases, astronomers will get their first glimpse of their colleagues’ latest research papers.

Luhman posted his paper “Discovery of a Binary Brown Dwarf at 2 Parsecs from the Sun” on astro-ph on March 11. For Crossfield and his colleagues at MPIA, this was a game-changer. Suddenly, here was a brown dwarf for which Doppler imaging could conceivably work, and yield the first ever surface map of a brown dwarf.

However, it would still take the light-gathering power of one of the largest telescopes in the world to make this happen, and observation time on such telescopes is in high demand. Crossfield and his colleagues decided they needed to apply one more test before they would apply. Any object suitable for Doppler imaging will flicker ever so slightly, growing slightly brighter and darker in turn as brighter or darker surface areas rotate into view. Did Luhman 16A or 16B flicker – in astronomer-speak: did one of them, or perhaps both, show high variability?

Astronomy comes with its own time scales. Communication via the Internet is fast. But if you have a new idea, then ordinarily, you can’t just wait for night to fall and point your telescope accordingly. You need to get an observation proposal accepted, and this process takes time – typically between half a year and a year between your proposal and the actual observations. Also, applying is anything but a formality. Large facilities, like the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescopes, or space telescopes like the Hubble, typically receive applications for more than 5 times the amount of observing time that is actually available.

But there’s a short-cut – a way for particularly promising or time-critical observing projects to be completed much faster. It’s known as “Director’s Discretionary Time”, as the observatory director – or a deputy – are entitled to distribute this chunk of observing time at their discretion.

Image of the MPG/ESO 2.2 m telescope at ESO's La Silla observatory
To monitor Luhman 16A and B’s brightness flucutations, Beth Biller used the MPG/ESO 2.2. meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. Image credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org)

On April 2, Beth Biller, another MPIA post-doc (she is now at the University of Edinburgh), applied for Director’s Discretionary Time on the MPG/ESO 2.2 m telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile. The proposal was approved the same day.

Biller’s proposal was to study Luhman 16A and 16B with an instrument called GROND. The instrument had been developed to study the afterglows of powerful, distant explosions known as gamma ray bursts. With ordinary astronomical objects, astronomers can take their time. These objects will not change much over the few hours an astronomer makes observations, first using one filter to capture one range of wavelengths (think “light of one color”), then another filter for another wavelength range. (Astronomical images usually capture one range of wavelengths – one color – at a time. If you look at a color image, it’s usually the result of a series of observations, one color filter at a time.)

Gamma ray bursts and other transient phenomena are different. Their properties can change on a time scale of minutes, leaving no time for consecutive observations. That is why GROND allows for simultaneous observations of seven different colors.

Biller had proposed to use GROND’s unique capability for recording brightness variations for Luhman 16A and 16B in seven different colors simultaneously – a kind of measurement that had never been done before at this scale. The most simultaneous information researchers had gotten from a brown dwarf had been at two different wavelengths (work by Esther Buenzli, then at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and colleagues). Biller was going for seven. As slightly different wavelength regimes contain information about gas at slightly different colors, such measurements promised insight into the layer structure of these brown dwarfs – with different temperatures corresponding to different atmospheric layers at different heights.

For Crossfield and his colleagues – Biller among them –, such a measurement of brightness variations should also show whether or not one of the brown dwarfs was a good candidate for Doppler imaging.

Image of the TRAPPIST telescope in its dome.
The robotic telescope TRAPPIST, also at ESO’s La Silla observatory, was the first to find brightness fluctuations of the brown dwarf Luhman 16B.

As it turned out, they didn’t even have to wait that long. A group of astronomers around Michaël Gillon had pointed the small robotic telescope TRAPPIST, designed for detecting exoplanets by the brightness variations they cause when passing between their host star and an observer on Earth, to Luhman 16AB. The same day that Biller had applied for observing time, and her application been approved, the TRAPPIST group published a paper “Fast-evolving weather for the coolest of our two new substellar neighbours”, charting brightness variations for Luhman 16B.

This news caught Crossfield thousands of miles from home. Some astronomical observations do not require astronomers to leave their cozy offices – the proposal is sent to staff astronomers at one of the large telescopes, who make the observations once the conditions are right and send the data back via Internet. But other types of observations do require astronomers to travel to whatever telescope is being used – to Chile, say, to or to Hawaii.

When the brightness variations for Luhman 16B were announced, Crossfield was observing in Hawaii. He and his colleagues realized right away that, given the new results, Luhman 16B had moved from being a possible candidate for the Doppler imaging technique to being a promising one. On the flight from Hawaii back to Frankfurt, Crossfield quickly wrote an urgent observing proposal for Director’s Discretionary Time on CRIRES, a spectrograph installed on one of the 8 meter Very Large Telescopes (VLT) at ESO’s Paranal observatory in Chile, submitting his application on April 5. Five days later, the proposal was accepted.

View of the 8 meter telescope Antu
Antu, the first of the four 8 meter Unit Telescopes (UTs) of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) shortly after installation in 2000. Image: ESO

On May 5, the giant 8 meter mirror of Antu, one of the four Unit Telescopes of the Very Large Telescope, turned towards the Southern constellation Vela (the “Sail of the Ship”). The light it collected was funneled into CRIRES, a high-resolution infrared spectrograph that is cooled down to about -200 degrees Celsius (-330 Fahrenheit) for better sensitivity.

Three and two weeks earlier, respectively, Biller’s observations had yielded rich data about the variability of both the brown dwarfs in the intended seven different wavelength bands.

At this point, no more than two months had passed between the original idea and the observations. But paraphrasing Edison’s famous quip, observational astronomy is 1% observation and 99% evaluation, as the raw data are analyzed, corrected, compared with models and inferences made about the properties of the observed objects.

For Beth Biller’s multi-wavelength monitoring of brightness variations, this took about five months. In early September, Biller and 17 coauthors, Crossfield and numerous other MPIA colleagues among them, submitted their article to the Astrophysical Journal Letters (ApJL) after some revisions, it was accepted on October 17. From October 18 onward, the results were accessible online at astro-ph, and a month later they were published on the ApJL website.

In late September, Crossfield and his colleagues had finished their Doppler imaging analysis of the CRIRES data. Results of such an analysis are never 100% certain, but the astronomers had found the most probable structure of the surface of Luhman 16B: a pattern of brighter and darker spots; clouds made of iron and other minerals drifting on hydrogen gas.

As is usual in the field, the text they submitted to the journal Nature was sent out to a referee – a scientist, who remains anonymous,  and who gives recommendations to the journal’s editors whether or not a particular article should be published. Most of the time, even for an article the referee thinks should be published, he or she has some recommendations for improvement. After some revisions, Nature accepted the Crossfield et al. article in late December 2013.

With Nature, you are only allowed to publish the final, revised version on astro-ph or similar servers no less than 6 month after the publication in the journal. So while a number of colleagues will have heard about the brown dwarf map on January 9 at a session at the 223rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in Washington, D.C., for the wider astronomical community, the online publication, on January 29, 2014, will have been the first glimpse of this new result. And you can bet that, seeing the brown dwarf map, a number of them will have started thinking about what else one could do. Stay tuned for the next generation of results.

And there you have it: 10 months of astronomical research, from idea to publication, resulting in the first surface map of a brown dwarf (Crossfield et al.) and the first seven-wavelength-bands-study of brightness variations of two brown dwarfs (Biller et al.). Taken together, the studies provide fascinating image of complex weather patterns on an object somewhere between a planet and a star the beginning of a new era for brown dwarf study, and an important step towards another goal: detailed surface maps of giant gas planets around other stars.

On a more personal note, this was my first ever press release to be picked up by the Weather Channel.

Nearby Brown Dwarf Captured in a Direct Image

A direct image of a brown dwarf companion (arrowed) taken at the Keck Observatory. (Credit: Crepp et al. 2014 APJ).

A recent find announced by astronomers may go a long ways towards understanding a crucial “missing link” between planets and stars.

The team, led by Friemann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame’s Justin R. Crepp, recently released an image of a brown dwarf companion to a star 98 light years or 30 parsecs distant. This discovery marks the first time that a T-dwarf orbiting a Sun-like star with known radial velocity acceleration measurement has been directly imaged.

Located in the constellation Eridanus, the object weighs in at about 52 Jupiter masses, and orbits a 0.95 Sol mass star 51 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant once every 320-1900 years. Note that this wide discrepancy stems from the fact that even though we’ve been following the object for some 17 years since 1996, we’ve yet to ascertain whether we’ve caught it near apastron or periastron yet: we just haven’t been watching it long enough.

The T-dwarf, known as HD 19467 B, may become a benchmark in the study of sub-stellar mass objects that span the often murky bridge between true stars shining via nuclear fusion and ordinary high mass planets.

Brown dwarfs are classified as spectral classes M, L, T, and Y and are generally quoted as having a mass of between 13 to 80 Jupiters. Brown dwarfs utilize a portion of the proton-proton chain fusion reaction to create energy, known as deuterium burning. Low mass red dwarf stars have a mass range of 80 to 628 Jupiters or 0.75% to 60% the mass of our Sun. The Sun has just over 1,000 times Jupiter’s mass.

Researchers used data from the TaRgeting bENchmark-objects with Doppler Spectroscopy (TRENDS) high-contrast imaging survey, and backed it up with more precise measurements courtesy of the Keck observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer or HIRES instrument.

An artist's conception of a T-type brown dwarf. (Credit: Tyrogthekreeper under a Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
An artist’s conception of a T-type brown dwarf. (Credit: Tyrogthekreeper under a Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

TRENDS uses adaptive optics, which relies on precise flexing the telescope mirror several thousands of times a second to compensate for the blurring effects of the atmosphere. Brown dwarfs shine mainly in the infrared, and objects such as HD 19467 B are hard to discern due to their close proximity to their host star. In this particular instance, for example, HD 19467 B was over 10,000 times fainter than its primary star, and located only a little over an arc second away.

“This object is old and cold and will ultimately garner much attention as one of the most well-studied and scrutinized brown dwarfs detected to date,” Crepp said in a recent Keck observatory press release. “With continued follow-up observations, we can use it as a laboratory to test theoretical atmospheric models. Eventually we want to directly image and acquire the spectrum of Earth-like planets. Then, from the spectrum, we should be able to tell what the planet is made of, what its mass is, radius, age, etc… basically all of its relevant properties.

Discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in a star’s habitable zone is currently the “holy grail” of exoplanet science. Direct observation also allows us to pin down those key factors, as well as obtain a spectrum of an exoplanet, where detection techniques such as radial velocity analysis only allow us to peg an upper mass limit on the unseen companion object.

This also means that several exoplanet candidates in the current tally of 1074 known worlds beyond our solar system also push into the lower end of the mass limit for substellar objects, and may in fact be low mass brown dwarfs as well.

Another key player in the discovery was the Near-Infrared Camera (second generation) or NIRC2. This camera works in concert with the adaptive optics system on the Keck II telescope to achieve images in the near infrared with a better resolution than Hubble at optical wavelengths, perfect for brown dwarf hunting. NIRC2 is most well known for its analysis of stellar regions near the supermassive black hole at the core of our galaxy, and has obtained some outstanding images of objects in our solar system as well.

The hexagonal primary mirror of the Keck II telescope. (Credit: SiOwl. A Wikimedia Commons image under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported liscense).
The hexagonal primary mirror of the Keck II telescope. (Credit: SiOwl. A Wikimedia Commons image under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

What is the significance of the find? Free floating “rogue” brown dwarfs have been directly imaged before, such as the pair named WISE J104915.57-531906 which are 6.5 light years distant and were spotted last year. A lone 6.5 Jupiter mass exoplanet PSO J318.5-22 was also found last year by the PanSTARRS survey searching for brown dwarfs.

“This is the first directly imaged T-dwarf (very cold brown dwarf) for which we have dynamical information independent of its brightness and spectrum,” team lead researcher Justin Crepp told Universe Today.

Analysis of brown dwarfs is significant to exoplanet science as well.

“They serve as an essential link between our understanding of stars and planets,” Mr. Crepp said. “The colder, the better.”

And just as there has been a controversy over the past decade concerning “planethood” at the low end of the mass scale, we could easily see the debate applied to the higher end range, as objects are discovered that blur the line… perhaps, by the 23rd century, we’ll finally have a Star Trek-esque classifications scheme in place so that we can make statements such as “Captain, we’ve entered orbit around an M-class planet…”

Something that’s always been fascinating in terms of red and brown dwarf stars is also the possibility that a solitary brown dwarf closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri could have thus far escaped detection. And no, Nibiru conspiracy theorists need not apply. Mr. Crepp notes that while possible, such an object is unlikely to have escaped detection by infrared surveys such as WISE. But what a discovery that’d be!

 

 

Surprise! Fomalhaut’s Kid Sister Has a Debris Disk Too

Image Credit: Amanda Smith

The bright star Fomalhaut hosts a spectacular debris disk: a dusty circling plane of small objects where planets form. At a mere 25 light-years away, we’ve been able to pinpoint detailed features: from the warm disk close by to the further disk that is comparable to the Solar System’s Kuiper belt.

But Fomalhaut never ceases to surprise us. At first we discovered a planet, Fomalhaut b, which orbits in the clearing between the two disks. Then we discovered that Fomalhaut was not a single star or a double star, but a triplet.  The breaking news today, however, is that we have discovered a mini debris disk around the third star.

Fomalhaut is massive, weighing in at 1.9 times the mass of the Sun. And at such a close distance it’s one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. But its two companions are much smaller. The second star, Fomalhaut B, is 0.7 times the mass of the Sun and the third star, Fomalhaut C, a small red dwarf, is 0.2 times the mass of the Sun.

Fomalhaut C orbits Fomalhaut A at a distance of 2.5 light-years, or roughly half the distance from the Sun to the closest neighboring star.  It was only confirmed to be gravitationally bound to Fomalhaut A and Fomalhaut B in October of last year.

“The disk around Fomalhaut C was a complete surprise,” lead researcher Grant Kennedy of the University of Cambridge told Universe Today. “This is only the second system in which disks around two separate stars have been discovered.”

Relatively cool dust and ice particles are much brighter at long wavelengths, allowing telescopes like the Herschel Space Telescope, to pick up the excess infrared light. However, Herschel has a much poorer resolution than an optical telescope so the image of Fomalhaut C’s disk is not spatially resolved — meaning the brightness of the disk could be measured but not its structure.

Kennedy’s team’s best guess is that the disk is quite cold, around 24 degrees Kelvin and pretty small, orbiting to and extent of 10 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. But it’s likely that it’s similar to Fomalhaut A’s disk in that it’s bright, elliptical, and slightly offset from its host star. All three characteristics suggest that gravitational perturbations may be destabilizing the cometary orbits within the disks.

“As a stellar system Fomalhaut’s gotten very interesting in the last year,” Kennedy said. With two wide companions “it’s not obvious how the configuration came about. Forming one wide companion is not so hard, but getting a second is very unlikely. So we need to come up with a new mechanism.”

Kennedy is currently working on figuring out what exactly this “new mechanism” is and he thinks the debris disk around Fomalhaut C will provide a few helpful hints. His best guess is still under construction but it’s likely that a small star is disturbing the system.

The next step will be to watch the stellar system over the next few years in order to measure their orbits exactly. With precise motions we just might be able to see what is interrupting the system.

“We think these observations will provide a good test of the theory,” Kennedy told Universe Today. They just might “solve the mystery of why the Fomalhaut system looks like it does.”

The paper has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available for download here.

Nearby Brown Dwarf System May Harbor Closest Exoplanet to Earth

WISE J104915.57-531906 as seen in NASA’s All-WISE survey (centered) and resolved to show its binary nature by the Gemini Observatory (inset). (Credit: NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF).

In 2012 astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-like planet circling our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri B, a mere 4.3 light-years away. But with such a discovery comes heated debate. A second group of astronomers was unable to confirm the exoplanet’s presence, keeping the argument unresolved to date.

But not to worry. One need only look 2.3 light-years further to see tantalizing — although yet unconfirmed — evidence of an exoplanet circling a pair of brown dwarfs: objects that aren’t massive enough to kick-off nuclear fusion in their cores. There just may be an exoplanet in the third closest system to our Sun.

Astronomers only discovered the system last year when the brown dwarfs were spotted in data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE). Check out a past Universe Today article on the discovery here. They escaped detection for so long because they are located in the galactic plane, an area densely populated by stars, which are far brighter than the brown dwarfs.

Henri Boffin at the European Southern Observatory led a team of astronomers on a mission to learn more about these newly found dim neighbors.  The group used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile to perform astrometry, a technique used to measure the position of the objects precisely. This crucial data would allow them to make a better estimate of the distance to the objects as well as their orbital period.

Boffin’s team was first able to constrain their masses, finding that one brown dwarf weighs in at 30 times the mass of Jupiter and the other weighs in at 50 times the mass of Jupiter. These light-weight objects orbit each other slowly, taking about 20 years.

But their orbits didn’t map out perfectly — there were slight disturbances, suggesting that something was tugging on these two brown dwarfs. The likely culprit? An exoplanet — at three times the weight of Jupiter — orbiting one or even both of the objects.

“The fact that we potentially found a planetary-mass companion around such a very nearby and binary system was a surprise,” Boffin told Universe Today.

The next step will be to monitor the system closely in order to verify the existence of a planetary-mass companion. With a full year’s worth of data it will be relatively straightforward to remove the signal caused by the exoplanet.

So far only eight exoplanets have been discovered around brown dwarfs. If confirmed, this planet will be the first to be discovered using astrometry.

“Once the companion is confirmed, this will be an ideal target to image using the upcoming SPHERE instrument on the VLT,” Boffin said. This instrument will allow astronomers to directly image planets close to their host star — a difficult technique worth the challenge as it reveals a wealth of information about the planet.

Once confirmed, this planet will stand as the closest exoplanet to the Sun, until the debate regarding Alpha Centauri Bb is resolved.

The paper has been accepted for publication as an Astronomy & Astrophysics Letter and is available for download here. For more information on Alpha Centauri Bb please read a paper available here and published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Three New Exoplanets Found In a Star Cluster

This artist's impression shows one of the three newly discovered planets in the star cluster Messier 67. In this cluster the stars are all about the same age and composition as the Sun. ESO/L. Calcada.

So far, just a handful of planets have been found orbiting stars in star clusters – and actually, astronomers weren’t too surprised about that. Star clusters can be pretty harsh places with hordes of stars huddling close together, with strong radiation and harsh stellar winds stripping planet-forming materials from the region.

But it turns out that perhaps astronomers are beginning to think differently about star clusters as being a homey place for exoplanets.

Scientists using several different telescopes, including the HARPS planet hunter in Chile have now discovered three planets orbiting stars in the cluster Messier 67.

“These new results show that planets in open star clusters are about as common as they are around isolated stars — but they are not easy to detect,” said Luca Pasquini from ESO, who is a co-author of a new paper about these planets. “The new results are in contrast to earlier work that failed to find cluster planets, but agrees with some other more recent observations. We are continuing to observe this cluster to find how stars with and without planets differ in mass and chemical makeup.”

This wide-field image of the sky around the old open star cluster Messier 67 was created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The cluster appears as a rich grouping of stars at the centre of the picture. Messier 67 contains stars that are all about the same age, and have the same chemical composition, as the Sun. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin.
This wide-field image of the sky around the old open star cluster Messier 67 was created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The cluster appears as a rich grouping of stars at the centre of the picture. Messier 67 contains stars that are all about the same age, and have the same chemical composition, as the Sun. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin.

The astronomers are pretty excited about one of these planets in particular, as it orbits a star that is a rare solar twin — a star that is almost identical to our Sun in all respects. This is the first “solar twin” in a cluster that has been found to have a planet.

“In the Messier 67 star cluster the stars are all about the same age and composition as the Sun,” said Anna Brucalassi from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and lead author of the new paper on these planets. “This makes it a perfect laboratory to study how many planets form in such a crowded environment, and whether they form mostly around more massive or less massive stars.”

This cluster lies about 2,500 light-years away in the constellation of Cancer and contains about 500 stars. Many of the cluster stars are fainter than those normally targeted for exoplanet searches and trying to detect the weak signal from possible planets pushed HARPS to the limit, the team said.

They carefully monitored 88 selected stars in Messier 67 over a period of six years to look for the tiny telltale “wobbling” motions of the stars that reveal the presence of orbiting planets.

Three planets were discovered, two orbiting stars similar to the Sun and one orbiting a more massive and evolved red giant star. Two of the three planets are “hot Jupiters” — planets comparable to Jupiter in size, but much closer to their parent stars and therefore not in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist.

The first two planets both have about one third the mass of Jupiter and orbit their host stars in seven and five days respectively. The third planet takes 122 days to orbit its host and is more massive than Jupiter.

Star clusters come in two main types: open and globular. Open clusters are groups of stars that have formed together from a single cloud of gas and dust in the recent past, and are mainly found in the spiral arms of a galaxy like the Milky Way. Globular clusters are much bigger spherical collections of much older stars that orbit around the center of a galaxy. Despite careful searches, no planets have been found in a globular cluster and less than six in open clusters.

Another study last year from a team using the Kepler telescope found two planets in a dense open star cluster and the team stated that how planets can form in the hostile environments of dense star clusters is “not well understood, either observationally or theoretically.”

Exoplanets have been found in some amazing environments, and astronomers will continue to hunt for planets in these clusters of stars to try and learn more about how and why — and how many — exoplanets exist in star clusters.

ESOcast 62: Three planets found in star cluster from ESO Observatory on Vimeo.

Read the team’s paper.

Source: ESO