Observing distant objects is no easy task, thanks to our planet’s thick and fluffy atmosphere. As light passes through the upper reaches of our atmosphere, it is refracted and distorted, making it much harder to discern objects at cosmological distances (billions of light years away) and small objects in adjacent star systems like exoplanets. For astronomers, there are only two ways to overcome this problem: send telescopes to space or equip telescopes with mirrors that can adjust to compensate for atmospheric distortion.
Since 1970, NASA and the ESA have launched more than 90 space telescopes into orbit, and 29 of these are still active, so it’s safe to say we’ve got that covered! But in the coming years, a growing number of ground-based telescopes will incorporate adaptive optics (AOs) that will allow them to perform cutting-edge astronomy. This includes the study of exoplanets, which next-generation telescopes will be able to observe directly using coronographs and self-adjusting mirrors. This will allow astronomers to obtain spectra directly from their atmospheres and characterize them to see if they are habitable.
Exoplanet studies have come a long way in a short time! To date, 5,523 exoplanets have been confirmed in 4,117 systems, with another 9,867 candidates awaiting confirmation. With all these planets available for study, exoplanet researchers have been shifting their focus from detection to characterization – i.e., looking for potential signs of life and biological activity (biosignatures). Some major breakthroughs are expected in the coming years, thanks in part to next-generation observatories like NASA’s James Webb andNancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and the ESA’s PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission.
Searching for exoplanets is incredibly difficult given their literal astronomical distances from Earth, which is why a myriad of methods have been created to find them. These include transit, redial velocity, astrometry, gravitational microlensing, and direct imaging. It is this last method that was used to recently create a time-lapse video that compresses a mind-blowing 17 years of the partial orbit of exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, into 10 seconds. The data to create the video was collected between 2003 and 2020, it encompasses approximately 75 percent of the total orbit, and marks the longest time-lapse video of an exoplanet ever produced.
In a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team of astronomers used the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawai?i Island to identify exoplanet, AF Lep b, which is three times the mass of Jupiter orbiting a Sun-sized star located approximately 87.5 light-years from Earth. What makes this discovery unique is AF Lep b is the first exoplanet discovered using a method called astrometry, which involves measuring unexpected, miniscule changes in the position of a star relative to nearby stars, which could indicate another object, an exoplanet, is causing gravitational tugs on its parent star.
Fans of Star Trek were over the Moon when, in 2018, astronomers with the Dharma Planet Survey (DPS) announced the possible detection of 40 Eridani b, an extrasolar planet in the star system 40 Eridani. Located just 16.3 light-years away, this triple-star system happens to be where the planet Vulcan was located in the popular franchise. Based on radial velocity measurements of the system’s primary star (40 Eridani A), the discovery team estimated that “Vulcan” was a rocky planet several times the mass of Earth (a Super-Earth) with an orbital period of 42 days or so.
The existence of this exoplanet has remained a controversial subject ever since. A study released in 2021 concluded that the signal was a false positive, but the debate remained open. Now, according to a new study by an international team of researchers, the detection of 40 Eridani b was a false positive that astronomers mistook for an exoplanet. The study was part of an archival review of exoplanets to identify promising candidates for follow-up studies. So while “Vulcan” is currently off the table, these results could lead to other exciting discoveries in the coming years.
Exoplanets have become quite the sensation over the last decade-plus, with scientists confirming new exoplanets on a regular basis thanks to NASA’s Kepler and TESS missions, along with the James Webb Space Telescope recently examining exoplanet atmospheres, as well. It’s because of these discoveries that exoplanet science has turned into an exciting field of intrigue and wonder, but do the very same scientists who study these wonderful and mysterious worlds have their own favorite exoplanets? As it turns out, four such exoplanet scientists, sometimes referred to as “exoplaneteers”, were kind enough to share their favorites with Universe Today!
As Einstein originally predicted with his General Theory of Relativity, gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. As a consequence, the passage of light changes as it encounters a gravitational field, which is how General Relativity was confirmed! For decades, astronomers have taken advantage of this to conduct Gravitational Lensing (GL) – where a distant source is focused and amplified by a massive object in the foreground.
In a recent study, two theoretical physicists argue that the Sun could be used in the same way to create a Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL). This powerful telescope, they argue, would provide enough light amplification to allow for Direct Imaging studies of nearby exoplanets. This could allow astronomers to determine if planets like Proxima b are potentially-habitable long before we send missions to study them.
In the past few decades, the study of extrasolar planets has grown by leaps and bounds, with the confirmation of over 4000 exoplanets. With so many planets available for study, the focus of exoplanet-researchers is shifting from discovery to characterization. In the coming years, new technologies and next-generation telescopes will also enable Direct Imaging studies, which will vastly improve our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.
To facilitate this process, astronomers will rely on costly technologies like coronagraphs and starshades, which block out the light of a star so any planets orbiting it will become more visible. However, according to a new study by an international team of astronomers and cosmologists, eclipsing binary stars could provide all the shading that’s needed to directly image planets orbiting them.
In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially. To date, a total of 4,158 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,081 systems, with an additional 5,144 candidates awaiting confirmation. Thanks to the abundance of discoveries, astronomers have been transitioning in recent years from the process of discovery to the process of characterization.
In particular, astronomers are developing tools to assess which of these planets could harbor life. Recently, a team of astronomers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) at Cornell University designed an environmental “decoder” based on the color of exoplanet surfaces and their hosts stars. In the future, this tool could be used by astronomers to determine which exoplanets are potentially-habitable and worthy of follow-up studies.
In 2016, astronomers working for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of a terrestrial planet around Earth’s closest stellar neighbor – Proxima Centauri. The discovery of this nearby extrasolar planet (Proxima b) caused no shortage of excitement because, in addition to being similar in size to Earth, it was found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone (HZ).
Thanks to an INAF-led team, a second exoplanet (a super-Earth) was found early this year around Proxima Centauri using the Radial Velocity Method. Based on the separation between the two planets, another INAF-led team attempted to observe this planet using the Direct Imaging Method. While not entirely successful, their observations raise the possibility that this planet has a system of rings around it, much like Saturn.