Where’s the Line Between Massive Planet and Brown Dwarf Star?

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026, observed by NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become stars. Image credit: NASA

When is a Brown Dwarf star not a star at all, but only a mere Gas Giant? And when is a Gas Giant not a planet, but a celestial object more akin to a Brown Dwarf? These questions have bugged astronomers for years, and they go to the heart of a new definition for the large celestial bodies that populate solar systems.

An astronomer at Johns Hopkins University thinks he has a better way of classifying these objects, and it’s not based only on mass, but on the company the objects keep, and how the objects formed. In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, Kevin Schlaufman made his case for a new system of classification that could helps us all get past some of the arguments about which object is a gas giant planet or a brown dwarf. Mass is the easy-to-understand part of this new definition, but it’s not the only factor. How the object formed is also key.

In general, the less massive a star, the cooler it is. Though stars smaller than our Sun can still sustain heat-producing fusion reactions, protostars that are too small cannot. These “failed” stars are commonly known as brown dwarfs, and a new definition puts their range from between 10-75 times the mass of Jupiter. This artist’s concept compares the size of a brown dwarf to that of Earth, Jupiter, a low-mass star, and the Sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).
In general, the less massive a star, the cooler it is. Though stars smaller than our Sun can still sustain heat-producing fusion reactions, protostars that are too small cannot. These “failed” stars are commonly known as brown dwarfs, and a new definition puts their range from between 10-75 times the mass of Jupiter. This artist’s concept compares the size of a brown dwarf to that of Earth, Jupiter, a low-mass star, and the Sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).

Schlaufman is an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy. He has set a limit for what we should call a planet, and that limit is between 4 and 10 times the mass of our Solar System’s biggest planet, Jupiter. Above that, you’ve got yourself a Brown Dwarf star. (Brown Dwarfs are also called sub-stellar objects, or failed stars, because they never grew massive enough to become stars.)

“An upper boundary on the masses of planets is one of the most prominent details that was missing.” – Kevin Schlaufman, Johns Hopkins University, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy.

Improvements in observing other solar systems have led to this new definition. Where previously we only had our own Solar System as reference, we now can observe other solar systems with increasing effectiveness. Schlaufman observed 146 solar systems, and that allowed him to fill in some of the blanks in our understanding of brown dwarf and planet formation.

An image of Jupiter showing its storm systems. According to a new definition, Jupiter would be considered a brown dwarf if it had grown to over 10 times its mass when it was formed. Image: Gemini
An image of Jupiter showing its storm systems. According to a new definition, Jupiter would be considered a brown dwarf if it had grown to over 10 times its mass when it was formed. Image: Gemini

“While we think we know how planets form in a big picture sense, there’s still a lot of detail we need to fill in,” Schlaufman said. “An upper boundary on the masses of planets is one of the most prominent details that was missing.”

Let’s back up a bit and look at how Brown Dwarfs and Gas Giants are related.

Solar systems are formed from clouds of gas and dust. In the early days of a solar system, one or more stars are formed out of this cloud by gravitational collapse. They ignite with fusion and become the stars we see everywhere in the Universe. The leftover gas and dust forms into planets, or brown dwarfs. This is a simplified version of solar system formation, but it serves our purposes.

In our own Solar System, only a single star formed: the Sun. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn gobbled up most of the rest of the material. Jupiter gobbled up the lion’s share, making it the largest planet. But what if conditions had been different and Jupiter had kept growing? According to Schlaufman, if it had kept growing to over 10 times the size it is now, it would have become a brown dwarf. But that’s not where the new definition ends.

Metallicity and Chemical Makeup

Mass is only part of it. What’s really behind his new classification is the way in which the object formed. This involves the concept of metallicity in stars.

Stars have a metallicity content. In astrophysics, this means the fraction of a star’s mass that is not hydrogen or helium. So any element from lithium on down is considered a metal. These metals are what rocky planets form from. The early Universe had only hydrogen and helium, and almost insignificant amounts of the next two elements, lithium and beryllium. So the first stars had no metallicity, or almost none.

This is an image of M80, an ancient globular cluster of stars. Since these stars formed in the early universe, their metallicity content is very low. This means that gas giants like Jupiter would be rare or non-existent here, while brown dwarfs are likely plentiful. Image: By NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA - Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6449278
This is an image of M80, an ancient globular cluster of stars. Since these stars formed in the early universe, their metallicity content is very low. This means that gas giants like Jupiter would be rare or non-existent here, while brown dwarfs are likely plentiful. Image: By NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA – Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6449278

But now, 13.5 billion years after the Big Bang, younger stars like our Sun have more metal in them. That’s because generations of stars have lived and died, and created the metals taken up in subsequent star formation. Our own Sun was formed about 5 billion years ago, and it has the metallicity we expect from a star with its birthdate. It’s still overwhelmingly made of hydrogen and helium, but about 2% of its mass is made of other elements, mostly oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.

This is where Schlaufman’s study comes in. According to him, we can distinguish between gas giants like Jupiter, and brown dwarfs, by the nature of the star they orbit. The types of planets that form around stars mirror the metallicity of the star itself. Gas giants like Jupiter are usually found orbiting stars with metallicity equal to or greater than our Sun. But brown dwarfs aren’t picky; they form around almost any star. Why?

Brown Dwarfs and Planets Form Differently

Planets like Jupiter are formed by accretion. A rocky core forms, then gas collects around it. Once the process is done, you have a gas giant. For this to happen, you need metals. If metals are present for these rocky cores to form, their presence will be reflected in the metallicity of the host star.

But brown dwarfs aren’t formed by accretion like planets are. They’re formed the same way stars are; by gravitational collapse. They don’t form from an initial rocky core, so metallicity isn’t a factor.

This brings us back to Kevin Schlaufman’s study. He wanted to find out the mass at which point an object doesn’t care about the metallicity of the star they orbit. He concluded that objects above 10 times the mass of Jupiter don’t care if the star has rocky elements, because they don’t form from rocky cores. Hence, they’re not planets akin to Jupiter; they’re brown dwarfs that formed by gravitational collapse.

What Does It Matter What We Call Them?

Let’s look at the Pluto controversy to understand why names are important.

The struggle to accurately classify all the objects we see out there in space is ongoing. Who can forget the plight of poor Pluto? In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto, and stripped it of its long-standing status as a planet. Why?

Because the new definition of what a planet is relied on these three criteria:

  • a planet is in orbit around a star.
  • a planet must have sufficient mass to assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape.)
  • a planet has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit

The more we looked at Pluto with better telescopes, the more we realized that it did not meet the third criteria, so it was demoted to Dwarf Planet. Sorry Pluto.

Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet based on our growing understanding of its nature. Will Schlaufman's new study help us more accurately classify gas giants and brown dwarfs? NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet based on our growing understanding of its nature. Will Schlaufman’s new study help us more accurately classify gas giants and brown dwarfs? NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Our naming conventions for astronomical objects are important, because they help people understand how everything fits together. But sometimes the debate over names can get tiresome. (The Pluto debate is starting to wear out its welcome, which is why some suggest we just call them all “worlds.”)

Though the Pluto debate is getting tiresome, it’s still important. We need some way of understanding what makes objects different, and names that reflect that difference. And the names have to reflect something fundamental about the objects in question. Should Pluto really be considered the same type of object as Jupiter? Are both really planets in the same sense? The IAU says no.

The same principle holds true with brown dwarfs and gas giants. Giving them names based solely on their mass doesn’t really tell us much. Schlaufman aims to change that.

His new definition makes sense because it relies on how and where these objects form, not simply their size. But not everyone will agree, of course.

Let the debate begin.

A Brown Dwarf Prevented a Regular Star from Going Through its Full Life Cycle

Eclipsing binary star systems are relatively common in our Universe. To the casual observer, these systems look like a single star, but are actually composed of two stars orbiting closely together. The study of these systems offers astronomers an opportunity to directly measure the fundamental properties (i.e. the masses and radii) of these systems respective stellar components.

Recently, a team of Brazilian astronomers observed a rare sight in the Milky Way – an eclipsing binary composed of  a white dwarf and a low-mass brown dwarf. Even more unusual was the fact that the white dwarf’s life cycle appeared to have been prematurely cut short by its brown dwarf companion, which caused its early death by slowly siphoning off material and “starving” it to death.

The study which detailed their findings, titled “HS 2231+2441: an HW Vir system composed by a low-mass white dwarf and a brown dwarf“, was recently published the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Leonardo Andrade de Almeida, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of São Paolo’s Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics, and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG-USP), along with members from the National Institute for Space Research (MCTIC), and the State University of Feira de Santana.

The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, located on the island of La Palma. Credit: IAC

For the sake of their study, the team conducted observations of a binary star system between 2005 and 2013 using the Pico dos Dias Observatory in Brazil. This data was then combined with information from the William Herschel Telescope, which is located in the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma. This system, known as of HS 2231+2441, consists of a white dwarf star and a brown dwarf companion.

White dwarfs, which are the final stage of intermediate or low-mass stars, are essentially what is left after a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel and blown off its outer layers. A brown dwarf, on the other hand, is a substellar object that has a mass which places it between that of a star and a planet. Finding a binary system consisting of both objects together in the same system is something astronomers don’t see everyday.

As Leonardo Andrade de Almeida explained in a FAPESP press release, “This type of low-mass binary is relatively rare. Only a few dozen have been observed to date.”

This particular binary pair consists of a white dwarf that is between twenty to thirty percent the Sun’s mass – 28,500 K (28,227 °C; 50,840 °F) – while the brown dwarf is roughly 34-36 times that of Jupiter. This makes HS 2231+2441 the least massive eclipsing binary system studied to date.

This artist’s impression shows an eclipsing binary star system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

In the past, the primary (the white dwarf) was a normal star that evolved faster than its companion since it was more massive. Once it exhausted its hydrogen fuel, its formed a helium-burning core. At this point, the star was on its way to becoming a red giant, which is what happens when Sun-like stars exit their main sequence phase. This would have been characterized by a massive expansion, with its diameter exceeding 150 million km (93.2 million mi).

At this point, Almeida and his colleagues concluded that it began interacting gravitationally with its secondary (the brown dwarf). Meanwhile, the brown dwarf began to be attracted and engulfed by the primary’s atmosphere (i.e. its envelop), which caused it it lose orbital angular momentum. Eventually, the powerful force of attraction exceeded the gravitational force keeping the envelop anchored to its star.

Once this happened, the primary star’s outer layers began to be stripped away, exposing its helium core and sending massive amounts of matter to the brown dwarf. Because of this loss of mass, the remnant effectively died, becoming a white dwarf. The brown dwarf then began orbiting its white dwarf primary with a short orbital period of just three hours. As Almeida explained:

“This transfer of mass from the more massive star, the primary object, to its companion, which is the secondary object, was extremely violent and unstable, and it lasted a short time… The secondary object, which is now a brown dwarf, must also have acquired some matter when it shared its envelope with the primary object, but not enough to become a new star.”

Artist’s impression of a brown dwarf orbiting a white dwarf star. Credit: ESO

This situation is similar to what astronomers noticed this past summer while studying the binary star system known as WD 1202-024. Here too, a brown dwarf companion was discovered orbiting a white dwarf primary. What’s more, the team responsible for the discovery indicated that the brown dwarf was likely pulled closer to the white dwarf once it entered its Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase.

At this point, the brown dwarf stripped the primary of its atmosphere, exposing the white dwarf remnant core. Similarly, the interaction of the primary with a brown dwarf companion caused premature stellar death. The fact that two such discoveries have happened within a short period of time is quite fortuitous. Considering the age of the Universe (which is roughly 13.8 billion years old), dead objects can only be formed in binary systems.

In the Milky Way alone, about 50% of low-mass stars exist as part of a binary system while high mass stars exist almost exclusively in binary pairs. In these cases, roughly three-quarters will interact in some way with a companion – exchanging mass, accelerating their rotations, and eventually en merging.

As Almeida indicated, the study of this binary system and those like it could seriously help astronomers understand how hot, compact objects like white dwarfs are formed. “Binary systems offer a direct way of measuring the main parameter of a star, which is its mass,” he said. “That’s why binary systems are crucial to our understanding of the life cycle of stars.”

It has only been in recent years that low-mass white dwarf stars were discovered. Finding binary systems where they coexist with brown dwarfs – essentially, failed stars – is another rarity. But with every new discovery, the opportunities to study the range of possibilities in our Universe increases.

Further Reading: São Paulo Research Foundation, MNRAS

This is Kind of Sad. Astronomers Find a Failed Star Orbiting a Dead Star

Death is simply a part of life, and this is no less the case where stars and other astronomical objects are concerned. Sure, the timelines are much, much greater where these are concerned, but the basic rule is the same. Much like all living organism, stars eventually reach old age and become white dwarfs. And some are not even fortunate enough to be born, instead becoming a class of failed stars known as brown dwarfs.

Despite being familiar with these objects, astronomers were certainly not expecting to find examples of both in a single star system! And yet, according to a new study, that is precisely what an international team of astronomers discovered when looked at WD 1202-024. Using data from the Kepler space telescope, they spotted a binary system consisting of a failed star (a brown dwarf) and the remnant of a star (a white dwarf).

Continue reading “This is Kind of Sad. Astronomers Find a Failed Star Orbiting a Dead Star”

A Planet With A 27,000 Year Orbit & That’s Just Where The Strangeness Begins

Every planet in the Solar System has its own peculiar orbit, and these vary considerably. Whereas planet Earth takes 365.25 days to complete a single orbit about our Sun, Mars takes almost twice as long – 686.971 days. Then you have Jupiter and the other gas giants, which take between 11.86 and 164.8 years to orbit our Sun. But even with these serving as examples, astronomers were not prepared for what they found when they looked at CVSO 30.

This star system, which lies some 1200 light years from Earth, has been found in recent years to have two candidate exoplanets. These planets, which are many times the mass of Jupiter, were discovered by an international team of astronomers using both the Transit Method and Direct Imaging. And what they found was very interesting: one planet has an orbital period of less than 11 days while the other takes a whopping 27,000 years to orbit its parent star!

In addition to being a big surprise, the detection of these two planets using different methods was an historic achievement. Up until now, the vast majority of the over 2,000 exoplanets discovered have been detected thanks to indirect methods. These include the aforementioned Transit Method, which detects planets by measuring the dimming effect they cause when crossing their parent star’s path, and the Radial Velocity Method, which measures the gravitational effect planets have on their parent star.

In 2012, astronomers used the Transit Method to detect CVSO 30b, a planet with 5 to 6 times the mass of Jupiter, and which orbits its star at a distance of only 1.2 million kilometers (by comparison, Mercury orbits our Sun at a distance of 58 million kilometers). From these characteristics, CVSO 30b can be described as a particularly “hot-Jupiter”.

In contrast, Direct Imaging has been used to spot only a few dozen exoplanets. The reason for this is because it is typically quite difficult to detect the light reflected by a planet’s atmosphere due it being drowned out by the light of its parent star. It can also be quite demanding when it comes to the instrument involved. Still, compared to indirect methods, it can be more effective when it comes to exploring the remote regions of a star.

Thanks to the efforts of an international team of astronomers, who combined the use of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) Calar Alto Observatory, CVSO 30c was spotted in remote regions around its parent star, orbiting at a distance of around 666 AU.

The details of the discovery were published in a paper titled “Direct Imaging discovery of a second planet candidate around the possibly transiting planet host CVSO 30“. In it, the researchers – who hail from such prestigious institutions as the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the Jena Observatory, the European Space Agency and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy – explained the methods used to find the exoplanet, and the significance of its discovery.

The star CVSO30, showing the two detection methods that revealed its exoplanet candidates. Credit: Keck Observatory/ESO/VLT/NACO
The star CVSO30, showing the two detection methods that revealed its exoplanet candidates. Credit: Keck Observatory/ESO/VLT/NACO

As Tobias Schmidt – of the University of Hamburg, the Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory Jena, and the lead author of the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“[30b and 30c] are both unusual on their own. CVSO 30b is the first transiting planet around a star as young as 2.5 million years. Published in 2012, all previously detected transiting planets were older than few hundred million years… It has been a surprise to find a planetary mass companion at 662 AU, or 662 times the distance from Earth to the Sun, from a primary star having only about 0.4 solar masses. According to the standard model, planets form in disks around the star. But none of the observed disks around such low-mass stars is large enough to form such an object.”

In other words, it is surprising to find two exoplanet candidates with several times the mass of Jupiter (aka. Super-Jupiters) orbiting a star as small as CVSO 30. But to find two exoplanets with such a disparity in terms of their respective distance from their star (despite being similar in mass) was particularly surprising.

Relying on high-contrast photometric and spectroscopic observations from the Very Large Telescope, the Keck telescopes and the Calar Alto observatory, the international team was able to spot 30c using a technique known as lucky imaging. This process, which is used by ground-based telescopes, involves many high-speed, quick exposure photos being taken to minimize atmospheric interference.

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/Wikimedia Commons.

What they found was an exoplanet with a wide orbit that was between 4 and 5 Jupiter masses, and was also very young – less than 10 million years old. What’s more, the spectroscopic data indicated that it is unusually blue for a planet, as most other planet candidates of its kind are very red. The researchers concluded from this that it is likely that 30c is the first young planet of its kind to be directly imaged.

They further concluded that 30 c is also likely the first “L-T transition object” younger than 10 million years to be found orbiting a star. L-T transition objects are a type of brown dwarf – objects that are too large to be considered planets, but too small to be considered stars. Typically they are found embedded in large clouds of gas and dust, or on their own in space.

Paired with its companion – 30 b, which is impossibly close to its parent star – 30 c is not believed to have formed at its current position, and is likely not stable in the long-term. At least, not where current models of planetary formation and orbit are concerned. However, as Prof. Schmidt indicated, this offers a potential explanation for the odd nature of these exoplanets.

“We do think this is a very good hint,” he said, “that the two objects might have formed regularly around the star at a separation comparable to Jupiter or Saturn’s separation from the Sun, then interacted gravitationally and were scattered to their current orbits. However this is still speculation, further investigations will try to prove this. Both have about the same mass of few Jupiter masses, the inner one might be even lower.”

The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it's adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl
The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it’s adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl

The discovery is also significant since it was the first time that these two detection methods – Transit and Direct Imaging – were used to confirm exoplanet candidates around the same star. In this case, the methods were quite complimentary, and present opportunities to learn more about exoplanets. As Professor Schmidt explained:

“Both Transit method and radial velocity method have problems finding planets around young stars, as the activity of young stars is disturbing the search for them. CVSO 30 b was the first very young planet found with these methods, currently a hand full of candidates exist. Direct imaging, on the other hand, is working best for young planets as they still contract and are thus self-luminous. It is therefore great luck that a far out planet was found around the very first young star hosting a inner planet…

“However, the real advantage of transit and direct imaging methods is that the two objects can now be investigated in greater detail. While we can use the direct light from the imaging for spectroscopy, i.e. split the light according to its wavelength, we hope to achieve the same for the inner planet candidate. This is possible as the light passes through the atmosphere of the planet during transits and some of the elements are absorbed by the composition material of the atmosphere. So we do hope to learn a lot about planet formation, thus also formation of the early Solar System and about young planets in particular from the CVSO 30 system.”

Since astronomers first began began to find exoplanet candidates in distant star systems, we have come to learn just how diverse our Universe really is. Many of the discoveries have challenged our notions about where planets can form around their parent star, while others have showed us that planets can take many different forms.

As time goes on and our exploration of the local Universe advances, we will be challenged to find explanations for how it all fits together. And from that, new and more comprehensive models will no doubt emerge.

Further Reading: IAA, arXiv

Can Stars Be Cold?

If you’ve heard me say “oot and aboot”, you know I’m a Canadian. And we Canadians are accustomed to a little cold. Okay, a LOT of cold. It’s not so bad here on the West Coast, but folks from Winnepeg can endure temperatures colder than the surface of Mars.  Seriously, who lives like that?

And on one of those cold days, even on a clear sunny day, the Sun is pointless and worthless. As the bone chilling cold numbs your fingers and toes, it’s as if the Sun itself has gone cold, sapping away all the joy and happiness in the world. And don’t get me started about the rain. Clearly, I need to take more tropical vacations.

But we know the Sun isn’t cold at all, it’s just that the atmosphere around you feels cold. The surface of the Sun is always the same balmy 5,500 degrees Celsius. Just to give you perspective, that’s hot enough to melt iron, nickel. Even carbon melts at 2500 C. So, no question, the Sun is hot.

The Sun – It’s pretty hot. Credit: NASA/SDO.

And you know that the Sun is hot because it’s bright. There are actually photons streaming from the Sun at various wavelengths, from radio, infrared, through the visible spectrum, and into the ultraviolet. There are even X-ray photons blasting off the Sun.

If the Sun was cooler, it would look redder, just like a cooler red dwarf star, and if the Sun was hotter, it would appear more blue. But could you have a star that’s cooler, or even downright cold?

The answer is yes, you just have to be willing to expand your definition of what a star is.

Under the normal definition, a star is a collection of hydrogen, helium and other elements that came together by mutual gravity. The intense gravitational pressure of all that mass raised temperatures at the core of the star to the point that hydrogen could be fused into helium. This reaction releases more energy than it takes, which causes the Sun to emit energy.

The coolest possible red dwarf star, one with only 7.5% the mass of the Sun, will still have a temperature of about 2,300 C, a little less than the melting point of carbon.

But if a star doesn’t have enough mass to ignite fusion, it becomes a brown dwarf. It’s heated by the mechanical action of all that mass compressing inward, but it’s cooler. Average brown dwarfs will be about 1,700 C, which actually, is still really hot. Like, molten rock hot.

This artist’s conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Brown dwarfs can actually get a lot cooler, a new class of these “stars” were discovered by the WISE Space Observatory that start at 300 degrees, and go all the way down to about 27 degrees, or room temperature. This means there are stars out there that you could touch.

Except you couldn’t, because they’d still have more than a dozen times the mass of Jupiter, and would tear your arm off with their intense gravity. And anyway, they don’t a solid surface. No, you can’t actually touch them.

That’s about as cold as stars get, today, in the Universe.

But if you’re willing to be very very patient, then it’s a different story. Our own Sun will eventually run out of fuel, die and become a white dwarf. It’ll start out hot, but over the eons, it’ll cool down, eventually becoming the same temperature as the background level of the Universe – just a few degrees above absolute zero. Astronomers call these black dwarfs.

We’re talking a long long time, though, in fact, in the 13.8 billion years that the Universe has been around, no white dwarfs have had enough time to cool down significantly. In fact, it would take about a quadrillion years to get within a few degrees of the cosmic microwave background radiation temperature.

Three New Earth-sized Planets Found Just 40 Light-Years Away

Three more potentially Earthlike worlds have been discovered in our galactic backyard, announced online today by the European Southern Observatory. Researchers using the 60-cm TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile have identified three Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away.

The star, originally classified as 2MASS J23062928-0502285 but now known more conveniently as TRAPPIST-1, is a dim “ultracool” red dwarf star only .05% as bright as our Sun . Located in the constellation Aquarius, it’s now the 37th-farthest star known to host orbiting exoplanets.

The exoplanets were discovered via the transit method (TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) through which the light from a star is observed to dim slightly by planets passing in front of it from our point of view. This is the same method that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has used to find over 1,000 confirmed exoplanets.

Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.
Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.

As an ultracool dwarf TRAPPIST-1 is a very small and dim and isn’t easily visible from Earth, but it’s its very dimness that has allowed its planets to be discovered with existing technology. Their subtle silhouettes may have been lost in the glare of larger, brighter stars.

Follow-up measurements of the three exoplanets indicated that they are all approximately Earth-sized and have temperatures ranging from Earthlike to Venuslike (which is, admittedly, a fairly large range.) They orbit their host star very closely with periods measured in Earth days, not years.

“With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the research paper. “The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System.”

Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star's habitable zone. Credit: PHL.
Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star’s habitable zone. Credit: PHL.

Although these three new exoplanets are Earth-sized they do not yet classify as “potentially habitable,” at least by the standards of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) operated by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. The planets fall outside PHL’s required habitable zone; two are too close to the host star and one is too far away.

In addition there are certain factors that planets orbiting ultracool dwarfs would have to contend with in order to be friendly to life, not the least of which is the exposure to energetic outbursts from solar flares.

This does not guarantee that the exoplanets are completely uninhabitable, though; it’s entirely possible that there are regions on or within them where life could exist, not unlike Mars or some of the moons in our own Solar System.

The exoplanets are all likely tidally locked in their orbits, so even though the closest two are too hot on their star-facing side and too cold on the other, there may be regions along the east or west terminators that maintain a climate conducive to life.

“Now we have to investigate if they’re habitable,” said co-author Julien de Wit at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “We will investigate what kind of atmosphere they have, and then will search for biomarkers and signs of life.”

Artist's impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.
Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Discovering three planets orbiting such a small yet extremely common type of star hints that there are likely many, many more such worlds in our galaxy and the Universe as a whole.

“So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets,” said study co-author Emmanuel Jehin.

The team’s research was presented in a paper entitled “Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star” and will be published in Nature.

Source: ESO, PHL, and MIT

________________

Note: the original version of this article described 2MASS J23062928-0502285 (TRAPPIST-1) as a brown dwarf based on its classification on the Simbad archive. But at M8V it is “definitely a star,” according to co-author Julien de Wit in an email, although at the very low end of the red dwarf line. Corrections have been made above.

Hubble Directly Measures Rotation of Cloudy ‘Super-Jupiter’

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have measured the rotation rate of an extreme exoplanet 2M1207b by observing the varied brightness in its atmosphere. This is the first measurement of the rotation of a massive exoplanet using direct imaging.

This is a composite image of the brown dwarf object 2M1207 (centre) and the fainter object seen near it, at an angular distance of 778 milliarcsec. Designated "Giant Planet Candidate Companion" by the discoverers, it may represent the first image of an exoplanet. Further observations, in particular of its motion in the sky relative to 2M1207 are needed to ascertain its true nature. The photo is based on three near-infrared exposures (in the H, K and L' wavebands) with the NACO adaptive-optics facility at the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory.
This is a composite image of the brown dwarf object 2M1207 (blue-white) and the planet 2M1207b, seen in red, located 170 light years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus. The photo is based on three near-infrared exposures with the taken with the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory. Credit: ESO

Little by little we’re coming to know at least some of the 2,085 exoplanets discovered to date more intimately despite their great distances and proximity to the blinding light of their host stars. 2M1207b is about four times more massive than Jupiter and dubbed a “super-Jupiter”. Super-Jupiters fill the gap between Jupiter-mass planets and brown dwarf stars. They can be up to 80 times more massive than Jupiter yet remain nearly the same size as that planet because gravity compresses the material into an ever denser, more compact sphere.

2M1207b lies 170 light years from Earth and orbits a brown dwarf at a distance of 5 billion miles. By contrast, Jupiter is approximately 500 million miles from the sun. You’ll often hear brown dwarfs described as “failed stars” because they’re not massive enough for hydrogen fusion to fire up in their cores the way it does in our sun and all the rest of the main sequence stars.

Researchers used Hubble’s exquisite resolution to precisely measure the planet’s brightness changes as it spins and nailed the rotation rate at 10 hours, virtually identical to Jupiter’s. While it’s fascinating to know a planet’s spin, there’s more to this extraordinary exoplanet. Hubble data confirmed the rotation but also showed the presence of patchy, “colorless” (white presumably) cloud layers. While perhaps ordinary in appearance, the composition of the clouds is anything but.

 exoplanet 2M1207 b with the Solar System planet Jupiter. Although four times more massive than the Jovian planet, gravity compresses its matter to keep it relatively small. Credit: Wikipedia / Aldaron
Exoplanet 2M1207 b with the Solar System planet Jupiter for comparison. Although four times more massive than the Jovian planet, gravity compresses its matter to keep it relatively small. Credit: Wikipedia / Aldaron

The planet appears bright in infrared light because it’s young (about 10 million years old) and still contracting, releasing gravitational potential energy that heats it from the inside out. All that extra heat makes 2M1207b’s atmosphere hot enough to form “rain” clouds made of vaporized rock. The rock cools down to form tiny particles with sizes similar to those in cigarette smoke. Deeper into the atmosphere, iron droplets are forming and falling like rain, eventually evaporating as they enter the lower levels of the atmosphere.

“So at higher altitudes it rains glass, and at lower altitudes it rains iron,” said Yifan Zhou of the University of Arizona, lead author on the research paper in a recent Astrophysical Journal. “The atmospheric temperatures are between about 2,200 to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.” Every day’s a scorcher on 2M1207b.

Both Jupiter and Saturn also emit more heat than they receive from the sun because they too are still contracting despite being 450 times older. The bigger you are, the slower you chill.

Illustration of the extrasolar planet 2M1207b (foreground) orbiting a brown dwarf. Credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon/STScI
Illustration of the extrasolar planet 2M1207b (foreground) orbiting a brown dwarf. Both shine brightly in infrared light. Credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon/STScI

All the planets in our Solar System possess only a fraction of the mass of the Sun. Even mighty Jove is a thousand times less massive. But Mr. Super-Jupiter’s a heavyweight compared to its brown dwarf host, being just 5-7 times less massive. While Jupiter and the rest of the planets formed by the accretion of dust and rocks within a clumpy disk of material surrounding the early Sun, it’s thought 2M1207b and its companion may have formed throughout the gravitational collapse of a pair of separate disks.

This super-Jupiter will an ideal target for the James Webb Space Telescope, a space observatory optimized for the infrared scheduled to launch in 2018. With its much larger mirror — 21-feet (6.5-meters) — Webb will help astronomers better determine the exoplanet’s atmospheric composition and created more detailed maps from brightness changes.

Teasing out the details of 2M1207b’s atmosphere and rotation introduces us to a most alien world the likes of which never evolved in our own Solar System. I feel like I’m aboard the Starship Enterprise visiting far-flung worlds. Only this is better. It’s real.

What is the Biggest Planet in the Solar System?

Jupiter and Io

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant of Jupiter. Between it’s constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its Giant Red Spot, there are many things about this planet that are both delightful and fascinating.

But perhaps the most impressive feature about Jupiter is its sheer size. In terms of mass, volume, and surface area, Jupiter is the biggest planet in our Solar System by a wide margin. But just what makes Jupiter so massive, and what else do we know about it?

Size and Mass:

Jupiter’s mass, volume, surface area and mean circumference are 1.8981 x 1027 kg, 1.43128 x 1015 km3, 6.1419 x 1010 km2, and 4.39264 x 105 km respectively. To put that in perspective, Jupiter diameter is roughly 11 times that of Earth, and 2.5 the mass of all the other planets in the Solar System combined.

But, being a gas giant, Jupiter has a relatively low density – 1.326 g/cm3 – which is less than one quarter of Earth’s. This means that while Jupiter’s volume is equivalent to about 1,321 Earths, it is only 318 times as massive. The low density is one way scientists are able to determine that it is made mostly of gases, though the debate still rages on what exists at its core (see below).

Composition:

Jupiter is composed primarily of gaseous and liquid matter. It is the largest of the gas giants, and like them, is divided between a gaseous outer atmosphere and an interior that is made up of denser materials. Its upper atmosphere is composed of about 88–92% hydrogen and 8–12% helium by percent volume of gas molecules, and approx. 75% hydrogen and 24% helium by mass, with the remaining one percent consisting of other elements.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons
This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

The atmosphere contains trace amounts of methane, water vapor, ammonia, and silicon-based compounds as well as trace amounts of benzene and other hydrocarbons. There are also traces of carbon, ethane, hydrogen sulfide, neon, oxygen, phosphine, and sulfur. Crystals of frozen ammonia have also been observed in the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

The interior contains denser materials, such that the distribution is roughly 71% hydrogen, 24% helium and 5% other elements by mass. It is believed that Jupiter’s core is a dense mix of elements – a surrounding layer of liquid metallic hydrogen with some helium, and an outer layer predominantly of molecular hydrogen. The core has also been described as rocky, but this remains unknown as well.

In 1997, the existence of the core was suggested by gravitational measurements, indicating a mass of from 12 to 45 times the Earth’s mass, or roughly 4%–14% of the total mass of Jupiter. The presence of a core is also supported by models of planetary formation that indicate how a rocky or icy core would have been necessary at some point in the planet’s history in order to collect its bulk of hydrogen and helium from the protosolar nebula.

However, it is possible that this core has since shrunk due to convection currents of hot, liquid, metallic hydrogen mixing with the molten core. This core may even be absent now, but a detailed analysis is needed before this can be confirmed. The Juno mission, which launched in August 2011, is expected to provide some insight into these questions, and thereby make progress on the problem of the core.

The temperature and pressure inside Jupiter increase steadily toward the core. At the “surface”, the pressure and temperature are believed to be 10 bars and 340 K (67 °C, 152 °F). At the “phase transition” region, where hydrogen becomes metallic, it is believed the temperature is 10,000 K (9,700 °C; 17,500 °F) and the pressure is 200 GPa. The temperature at the core boundary is estimated to be 36,000 K (35,700 °C; 64,300 °F) and the interior pressure at roughly 3,000–4,500 GPa.

Moons:

The Jovian system currently includes 67 known moons. The four largest are known as the Galilean Moons, which are named after their discoverer, Galileo Galilei. They include: Io, the most volcanically active body in our Solar System; Europa, which is suspected of having a massive subsurface ocean; Ganymede, the largest moon in our Solar System; and Callisto, which is also thought to have a subsurface ocean and features some of the oldest surface material in the Solar System.

Then there’s the Inner Group (or Amalthea group), which is made up of four small moons that have diameters of less than 200 km, orbit at radii less than 200,000 km, and have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree. This groups includes the moons of Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. Along with a number of as-yet-unseen inner moonlets, these moons replenish and maintain Jupiter’s faint ring system.

Jupiter also has an array of Irregular Satellites, which are substantially smaller and have more distant and eccentric orbits than the others. These moons are broken down into families that have similarities in orbit and composition, and are believed to be largely the result of collisions from large objects that were captured by Jupiter’s gravity.

Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA
Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA

Interesting Facts:

Much like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. The intense radiation, Jupiter’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere creates a light show that is truly spectacular.

Jupiter also has a violent atmosphere. Winds in the clouds can reach speeds of up to 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s. The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear.

The discovery of exoplanets has revealed that planets can get even bigger than Jupiter. In fact, the number of “Super Jupiters” observed by the Kepler space probe (as well as ground-based telescopes) in the past few years has been staggering. In fact, as of 2015, more than 300 such planets have been identified.

Notable examples include PSR B1620-26 b (Methuselah), which was the first super-Jupiter to be observed (in 2003). At 12.7 billion years of age, it is also the third oldest known planet in the universe. There’s also HD 80606 b (Niobe), which has the most eccentric orbit of any known planet, and 2M1207b (Lerna), which orbits the brown dwarf Fomalhaut b (Illion).

Scientist theorize that a gas gain could get 15 times the size of Jupiter before it began deuterium fusion, making it a brown dwarf star. Good thing too, since the last thing the Solar System needs if for Jupiter to go nova!

Jupiter was appropriately named by the ancient Romans, who chose to name after the king of the Gods (Jupiter, or Jove). The more we have come to know and understand about this most-massive of Solar planets, the more deserving of this name it appears.

If you’re wondering, here’s how big planets can get with a lot of mass, and here’s what is the biggest star in the Universe. And here’s the 2nd largest planet in the Solar System.

Here’s another article about the which is the largest planet in the Solar System, and here’s what’s the smallest planet in the Solar System.

We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.

Sources:

What Strange Places Are Habitable?

What Strange Places are Habitable

Everywhere we look on Earth, we find life. Even in the strangest corners of planet. What other places in the Universe might be habitable?

There’s life here on Earth, but what other places could there be life? This could be life that we might recognize, and maybe even life as we don’t understand it.

People always accuse me of being closed minded towards the search for life. Why do I always want there to be an energy source and liquid water? Why am I so hydrocentric? Scientists understand how life works here on Earth. Wherever we find liquid water, we find life: under glaciers, in your armpits, hydrothermal vents, in acidic water, up your nose, etc.

Water acts as a solvent, a place where atoms can be moved around and built into new structures by life forms. It makes sense to search for liquid water as it always seems to have life here. So where could we go searching for liquid water in the rest of the Universe?

Under the surface of Europa, there are deep oceans. They’re warmed by the gravitational interactions of Jupiter tidally flexing the surface of the moon. There could be life huddled around volcanic vents within its ocean. There’s a similar situation in Saturn’s Moon Enceladus, which is spewing out water ice into space; there might be vast reserves of liquid water underneath its surface. You could imagine a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant in another star system, or maybe you can just let George Lucas imagine it for you and fill it with Ewoks.

The white dwarf G29-38 (Image Credit: NASA)
The white dwarf G29-38 (Image Credit: NASA)

Let’s look further afield. What about dying white dwarf stars? Even though their main sequence days are over, they’re still giving off a lot of energy, and will slowly cool down over the coming billions of years. Brown dwarfs could get in on this action as well. Even though they never had enough mass to ignite solar fusion, they’re still generating heat. This could provide a safe warm place for planets to harbor life.

It gets a little trickier in either of these systems. White and brown dwarfs would have very narrow habitable zones, maybe 1/100th the size of the one in our Solar System. And it might shift too quickly for life to get started or survive for very long. This is our view, what we know life to be with water as a solvent. But astrobiologists have found other liquids that might work well as solvents too.

Artist concept of Methane-Ethane lakes on Titan (Credit: Copyright 2008 Karl Kofoed).  Click for larger version.
Artist concept of Methane-Ethane lakes on Titan (Credit: Copyright 2008 Karl Kofoed). Click for larger version.

What about life forms that live in oceans of liquid methane on Titan, or creatures that use silicon or boron instead of carbon. It might just not be science fiction after all. It’s a vast Universe out there, stranger than we can imagine. Astronomers are looking for life wherever makes sense – wherever there’s liquid water. And if they don’t find any there, they’ll start looking places that don’t make sense.

What do you think? When we first find life, what will be its core building block? Silicon? Boron? or something even more exotic?

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