What Steps Are Needed To Find More Earths?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mega Discovery! 715 Alien Planets Confirmed Using A New Trick On Old Kepler Data

Planet-watchers, some exciting news: you know how we keep talking about planet candidates, those planets that have yet to be confirmed, when we reveal stories about other worlds? That’s because verifying that the slight dimming of a star’s light is due to a planet takes time – -specifically, to have other telescopes verify it through examining gravitational wobbles on the parent star.

Turns out there’s a way to solve the so-called “bottleneck” of planet candidates vs. confirmed planets. NASA has made use of a new technique that they say will work for multi-planet systems, one that already has results: a single Kepler release of data today (Feb. 26) yielded 715 new planets in one shot. That almost doubles the amount of known planets found before today, which was just under 1,000, officials said.

“This is the largest windfall of planets, not exoplanet candidates, but actual verified exoplanets announced at one time,” said Doug Hudgins, a NASA exoplanet exploration program scientist based in Washington, D.C., at a press conference today. What’s more, among the release were four planets (about double to 2.5 times the size of Earth) that could be considered habitable: Kepler-174 d, Kepler-296 f, Kepler-298 d, Kepler-309 c.

The findings were based on scouring the first two of Kepler’s four years of data, so scientists expect there will be a lot more to come once they go through the second half. Most of the discoveries were planets close to Earth’s size, showing that small planets are common in multiplanetary systems.

These planets, however, are crowded into insanely compact multiple planet systems, sometimes within the reaches of the equivalent of Mercury’s or Venus’ orbits. It’s raising questions about how young systems would have enough material in those reaches to form planets. Perhaps planetary migration played a role, but that’s still poorly understood.

Verification by multiplicity is a new method for finding planets in multiple-planet systems. In cases where astronomers see several objects transiting a star in regular orbits, the assumption is it must be planets. A set of stars in a similar configuration would have orbits too unstable for regular transits. Credit: NASA
Verification by multiplicity is a new method for finding planets in multiple-planet systems. In cases where astronomers see several objects transiting a star in regular orbits, the assumption is it must be planets. A set of stars in a similar configuration would have orbits too unstable for regular transits. Credit: NASA

Discoveries of these worlds was made with a new technique called “verification by multiplicity”. The challenge with the method Kepler uses — watching for starlight dimming when a planet passes in front of it — is there are other ways that same phenomenon can occur. One common reason is if the star being observed is a binary star and the second star is just barely grazing the first.

This is how the technique works: If you can imagine a star with a bunch of other stars around it, the mutual gravities of each object would throw their relative orbits into chaos. A star with a bunch of planets, however, would have a more stable orbital configuration. So if scientists see multiple transits of objects across a star’s face, the assumption is that it would be several planets.

“This physical difference, the fact you can’t have multiple star systems that look like planetary systems, is the basis of the validation by multiplicity,” said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center who was involved in the research.

Although this is a new technique, the astronomers said there has been at least one published publication talking about this method, and they added that two papers based on their own research have been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Astrophysical Journal.

Sizes of verified planets just after a release of 715 confirmed planets from Kepler data in February 2014. Credit: NASA
Sizes of verified planets just after a release of 715 confirmed planets from Kepler data in February 2014. Credit: NASA

There’s been a lot of attention on Kepler lately, not only because of its planetary finds, but also its uncertain status. In May 2013, a second of its four reaction wheels (or gyroscopes) went down, robbing the probe of its primary mission: to seek planets transiting in front of their stars in a spot in the Cygnus constellation. Since then, scientists have been working on a new method of finding planets with the spacecraft.

Called K2, it would essentially use the sun’s photon “push” on the spacecraft as a way to stabilize Kepler long enough to peer at different areas of the sky throughout the year. The mission is now at a senior-level review process and a decision is expected around May this year.

The spacecraft is good to go for K2 physically, NASA added, as the spacecraft only has four major malfunctions: the two reaction wheels, and 2 (out of 21) “science modules” that are used for science observing. The first module failed early in the mission, while the second died during a recent K2 test. While the investigation is ongoing, NASA said that they expect it will be due to an isolated part failure and that it will have no measurable impact on doing K2.

Edit, 8:30 p.m. EST: The two papers related to the Kepler discovery are available here and here on the prepublishing site Arxiv. Both are accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. (Hat tip to Tom Barclay).

Mercury’s Resonant Rotation ‘Should Be Common’ In Alien Planets

Three to two. That’s the ratio of the time it takes Mercury to go around the sun (88 days) in relation to its rotation (58 days). This is likely due to the influence of the Sun’s immense gravity on the planet. A new study confirms that finding, while stating something even more interesting: other star systems could see the same type of resonance.

Hundreds of confirmed exoplanets have been found so far, many of them in very tight configurations, the authors said. “Mercury-like states should be common among the hundreds of discovered and confirmed exoplanets, including potentially habitable super-Earths orbiting M-dwarf [red dwarf] stars,” they added. “The results of this investigation provide additional insight into the possibilities of known exoplanets to support extraterrestrial life.”

Habitability, of course, depends on many metrics. What kind of star is in the system, and how stable is it? How far away are the planets from the star? What is the atmosphere of the planet like? And as this study points out, what about if one side of the planet is tidally locked to its star and spends most or all of its time with one side facing the starshine?

Additionally, the study came up with an explanation as to why Mercury remains in a 3:2 orbit in opposition to, say, the Moon, which always has one side facing the Earth. The study took into account factors such as internal friction and a tidal “bulge” that makes Mercury appear slightly misshapen (and which could slow it down even further.) Basically, it has to do with Mercury’s early history.

From Orbit, Looking toward Mercury's Horizon. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
From Orbit, Looking toward Mercury’s Horizon. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“Among the implications of the released study are, to name a few, a fast tidal spin-down, a relatively cold (i.e., not fully molten) state of the planet at the early stages of its life, and a possibility that the internal segregation and formation of the massive liquid core happened after Mercury’s capture into the resonance,” the press release added.

The results were presented today (Oct. 7) at the American Astronomical Society department of planetary sciences meeting held in Denver. A press release did not make clear if the study has been submitted for peer review or published.

Source: AAS Division of Planetary Sciences

Kepler Can Still Hunt For Earth-Sized Exoplanets, Researchers Suggest

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft.(NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

Kepler may not be hanging up its planet-hunting hat just yet. Even though two of its four reaction wheels — which are crucial to long-duration observations of distant stars —  are no longer operating, it could still be able to seek out potentially-habitable exoplanets around smaller stars. In fact, in its new 2-wheel mode, Kepler might actually open up a whole new territory of exoplanet exploration looking for Earth-sized worlds orbiting white dwarfs.

An international team of scientists, led by Mukremin Kilic of the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, are suggesting that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft should turn its gaze toward dim white dwarfs, rather than the brighter main-sequence stars it was previously observing.

“A large fraction of white dwarfs (WDs) may host planets in their habitable zones. These planets may provide our best chance to detect bio-markers on a transiting ex- oplanet, thanks to the diminished contrast ratio between the Earth-sized WD and its Earth-sized planets. The James Webb Space Telescope is capable of obtaining the first spectroscopic measurements of such planets, yet there are no known planets around WDs. Here we propose to take advantage of the unique capability of the Kepler space- craft in the 2-Wheels mode to perform a transit survey that is capable of identifying the first planets in the habitable zone of a WD.”

– Kilic et al.

Any bio-markers — such as molecular oxygen, O2 — could later be identified around such Earth-sized exoplanets by the JWST, they propose.

Will Kepler be able to find the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf? (Illustration of Kepler 22b. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
Will Kepler be able to find the first Earth-sized exoplanet — or even an exomoon — orbiting a white dwarf? (Illustration of Kepler 22b. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Because Kepler’s precision has been greatly reduced by the failure of a second reaction wheel earlier this year, it cannot accurately aim at large stars for the long periods of time required to identify the minute dips in brightness caused by the silhouetted specks of passing planets. But since white dwarfs — the dim remains of stars like our Sun — are much smaller, any eclipsing exoplanets would make a much more pronounced effect on their apparent luminosity.

In effect, exoplanets ranging from Earth- to Jupiter-size orbiting white dwarfs as close as .03 AU — well within their habitable zones — would significantly block their light, making Kepler’s diminished aim not so much of an issue.

“Given the eclipse signature of Earth-size and larger planets around WDs, the systematic errors due to the pointing problems is not the limiting factor for WDHZ observations,” the team assures in their paper “Habitable Planets Around White Dwarfs: an Alternate Mission for the Kepler Spacecraft.”

Even smaller orbiting objects could potentially be spotted in this fashion, they add… perhaps even as small as the Moon.

The team is proposing a 200-day-long survey of 10,000 known white dwarfs within the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) area, and expects to find up to 100 exoplanet candidates as well as other “eclipsing short period stellar and sub-stellar companions.”

“If the history of exoplanet science has taught us anything, it is that planets are ubiquitous and they exist in the most unusual places, including very close to their host stars and even around pulsars… Currently there are no known planets around WDs, but we have never looked at a sufficient number of WDs at high cadence to find them through transit observations.”

– Kilic et al.

Read the team’s full report here, and learn more about the Kepler mission here.

NASA’s Ames Research Center made an open call for proposals regarding Kepler’s future operations on August 2. Today is the due date for submissions, which will undergo a review process until Nov. 1, 2013.

Added 9/4: For another take on this, check out Paul Gilster’s write-up on Centauri Dreams.

Double Vision: Scientists Spot An Elder ‘Twin’ To the Sun

If you want a picture of how you’ll look in 30 years, youngsters are told, look at your parents. The same principle is true of astronomy, where scientists compare similar stars in different age groups to see how they progress.

We have a special interest in learning how the Sun will look in a few billion years because, you know, it’s the main source of energy and life on Earth. Newly discovered HIP 102152 could give us some clues. The star is four billion years older than the sun, but so close in composition that researchers consider it almost like a twin.

Telescopes have only been around for a few centuries, making it hard to project what happens during the billions upon billions of years for a star’s lifetime. We have about 400 years of observations on the sun, for example, which is a minute fraction of its 4.6 billion-year-old lifespan so far.

The Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack
Today, we take telescopic observations of the Sun for granted, but the technology only became available about 400 years ago. This picture shows the Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack

“It is very hard to study the history and future evolution of our star, but we can do this by hunting for rare stars that are almost exactly like our own, but at different stages of their lives,” stated the European Southern Observatory.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope — guided by a team led by the University of Sao Paulo’s Jorge Melendez — examined HIP 102152 with a spectrograph that broke up the light into various colors, revealing properties such as chemical composition. Around the same time, they scrutinized 18 Scorpii, also considered to be a twin but one that is younger than the sun (2.9 billion years old)

So what can we predict about the Sun’s future? One thing puzzling scientists has been the amount of lithium in our closest stellar companion. Although the Big Bang (the beginning of the universe) created hydrogen, helium and lithium, only the first two elements are abundant in the Sun.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements

HIP 102152, it turns out, also has low levels of lithium. Why isn’t clear yet, ESO notes, although “several processes have been proposed to transport lithium from the surface of a star into its deeper layers, where it is then destroyed.” Previous observations of young Sun-like stars also show higher levels of lithium, implying something changes between youth and middle age.

The elder twin to our Sun may host another discovery: there could be Earth-sized planets circling the star. Chemical properties of HIP 102152 show that it has few elements that you see in meteorites and rocky planets, implying the elements are “locked up” in bodies close to the star. “This is a strong hint that HIP 102152 may host terrestrial rocky planets,” ESO stated.

Better yet, separate observations showed that there are no giant planets close to the star — leaving room for Earth-sized planets to flourish.

The research is available in a recent edition of Astrophysical Letters.

Source: European Southern Observatory