What is the Gravitational Microlensing Method?

Welcome back to our series on Exoplanet-Hunting methods! Today, we look at the curious and unique method known as Gravitational Microlensing.

The hunt for extra-solar planets sure has heated up in the past decade. Thanks to improvements made in technology and methodology, the number of exoplanets that have been observed (as of December 1st, 2017) has reached 3,710 planets in 2,780 star systems, with 621 system boasting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to various limits astronomers are forced to contend with, the vast majority have been discovered using indirect methods.

One of the more commonly-used methods for indirectly detecting exoplanets is known as Gravitational Microlensing. Essentially, this method relies on the gravitational force of distant objects to bend and focus light coming from a star. As a planet passes in front of the star relative to the observer (i.e. makes a transit), the light dips measurably, which can then be used to determine the presence of a planet.

In this respect, Gravitational Microlensing is a scaled-down version of Gravitational Lensing, where an intervening object (like a galaxy cluster) is used to focus light coming from a galaxy or other object located beyond it. It also incorporates a key element of the highly-effective Transit Method, where stars are monitored for dips in brightness to indicate the presence of an exoplanet.

Description:

In accordance with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, gravity causes the fabric of spacetime to bend. This effect can cause light affected by an object’s gravity to become distorted or bent. It can also act as a lens, causing light to become more focused and making distant objects (like stars) appear brighter to an observer. This effect occurs only when the two stars are almost exactly aligned relative to the observer (i.e. one positioned in front of the other).

These “lensing events” are brief, but plentiful, as Earth and stars in our galaxy are always moving relative to each other. In the past decade, over one thousand such events have been observed, and typically lasted for a few days or weeks at a time. In fact, this effect was used by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1919 to provide the first empirical evidence for General Relativity.

This took place during the solar eclipse of May 29th, 1919, where Eddington and a scientific expedition traveled to the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa to take pictures of the stars that were now visible in the region around the Sun. The pictures confirmed Einstein’s prediction by showing how light from these stars was shifted slightly in response to the Sun’s gravitational field.

The technique was originally proposed by astronomers Shude Mao and Bohdan Paczynski in 1991 as a means of looking for binary companions to stars. Their proposal was refined by Andy Gould and Abraham Loeb in 1992 as a method of detecting exoplanets. This method is most effective when looking for planets towards the center of the galaxy, as the galactic bulge provides a large number of background stars.

Advantages:

Microlensing is the only known method capable of discovering planets at truly great distances from the Earth and is capable of finding the smallest of exoplanets. Whereas the Radial Velocity Method is effective when looking for planets up to 100 light years from Earth and Transit Photometry can detect planets hundreds of light-years away, microlensing can find planets that are thousands of light-years away.

While most other methods have a detection bias towards smaller planets, the microlensing method is the most sensitive means of detecting planets that are around 1-10 astronomical units (AU) away from Sun-like stars. This makes it especially effective when paired with the Radial Velocity and Transit Methods, which can confirm the existence of exoplanets as well as yield accurate estimates of a planet’s radius and mass.

Taken together, these benefits make microlensing the most effective method for finding Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars (alone or in combination with other methods). In addition, microlensing surveys can be effectively mounted using ground-based facilities. Like Transit Photometry, the Microlensing Method benefits from the fact that it can be used to survey tens of thousands of stars simultaneously.

Disadvantages:

Because microlensing events are unique and not subject to repeat, any planets detected using this method will not be observable again. In addition, those planets that are detected tend to be very far way, which makes follow-up investigations virtually impossible. This makes microlensing a good means for detecting exoplanet candidates, but a very poor means for confirming candidates.

Another problem with microlensing is that it is subject to a considerable margin of error when placing constraints on a planet’s characteristics. For example, microlensing surveys can only produce rough estimations of a planet’s distance, leaving large margins for error. This means that planets that are tens of thousands of light-years from Earth would produce distance estimates with a margin of several thousand light-years.

Microlensing is also unable to yield accurate estimates of a planet’s size, and mass estimates are subject to loose constraints. Orbital properties are also difficult to determine, since the only orbital characteristic that can be directly determined with this method is the planet’s current semi-major axis. As such, planet’s with an eccentric orbit will only be detectable for a tiny portion of its orbit (when it is far away from its star).

The gravitational microlensing effect increases as a result of the planet-to-star mass ratio, which means that it is easiest to detect planets around low-mass stars. This makes microlensing effective in the search for rocky planets around low mass, M-type (red dwarf) stars, but limits its effectiveness with more massive stars. Finally, microlensing is dependent on rare and random events – the passage of one star precisely in front of another, as seen from Earth – which makes detections both rare and unpredictable.

Examples of Gravitational Microlensing Surveys:

Surveys that rely on the Microlensing Method include the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) at the University of Warsaw. Led by Andrzej Udalski, the director of the University’s Astronomical Observatory, this international project uses the 1.3 meter “Warsaw” telescope at Las Campanas, Chile, to search for microlensing events in a field of 100 stars around the galactic bulge.

The Astronomical Observatory at the University of Warsaw, used to conduct the OGLE project. Credit: ogle.astrouw.edu.pl

There is also the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) group, a collaborative effort between researchers in New Zealand and Japan. Led by Professor Yasushi Muraki of Nagoya University, this group uses the Microlensing Method to conduct surveys for dark matter, extra-solar planets, and stellar atmospheres from the southern hemisphere.

And then there’s the Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork (PLANET), which consists of five 1-meter telescopes distributed around the southern hemisphere. In collaboration with RoboNet, this project is able to provide near-continuous observations for microlensing events caused by planets with masses as low as Earth’s.

We have written many interesting articles on exoplanet detection here at Universe Today. Here is What are Extra Solar Planets?, What is the Transit Method?, What is the Radial Velocity Method?, What is Gravitational Microlensing? and Kepler’s Universe: More Planets in our Galaxy than Stars

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s page on Exoplanet Exploration, the Planetary Society’s page on Extrasolar Planets, and the NASA/Caltech Exoplanet Archive.

Astronomy Cast also has relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 208: The Spitzer Space Telescope, Episode 337: Photometry, Episode 364: The CoRoT Mission, and Episode 367: Spitzer Does Exoplanets.

Sources:

Discovery! More Planets Found Orbiting In A Star Cluster

As Earthlings, we’re so used to thinking about planets being in simple orbits around a single star. But the Sun likely didn’t begin its life alone. It formed as part of a cluster of stars, all feeding from the same well of gas.

Could star clusters also host planets? Or do they have to wait for the little guys until the stars evolve and move further apart? Well, astronomers have actually just found planets — yes, two planets — orbiting Sun-like stars in a cluster 3,000 light-years from Earth.

 

These are the third and fourth star cluster planets yet discovered, but the first found “transiting” or passing across the face of their stars as seen from Earth. (The others were found through detecting gravitational wobbles in the star.)

This is no small feat for a planet to survive. In a telescope, a star cluster might look pretty benign, but up close it’s pretty darn harsh. A press release about the discovery used a lot of words like “strong radiation”, “harsh stellar winds” and “stripping planet-forming materials” in a description of what NGC 6811 would feel like.

An artist's conception of a planet in a star cluster. Credit: Michael Bachofner
An artist’s conception of a planet in a star cluster. Credit: Michael Bachofner

“Old clusters represent a stellar environment much different than the birthplace of the Sun and other planet-hosting field stars,” stated lead author Soren Meibom of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“We thought maybe planets couldn’t easily form and survive in the stressful environments of dense clusters, in part because for a long time we couldn’t find them.”

The find, as you would expect, comes from the prolific planet-hunting NASA Kepler spacecraft that is now battling problems with pointing in the right direction. Although the telescope is in the penalty box, there still are reams of data waiting to be analyzed and released.

The planets are known as Kepler-66b and Kepler-67b, and are both approaching the size of Neptune (which is four times the size of Earth). Their parent cluster, NGC 6811, is one billion years old. Astronomers are still puzzled as to how these little worlds survived for so long.

“Highly energetic phenomena including explosions, outflows and winds often associated with massive stars would have been common in the young cluster,” stated the journal paper in Nature.

“The degree to which the formation and evolution of planets is influenced by a such a dense and dynamically and radiatively hostile environment is not well understood, either observationally or theoretically.”

Check out the entire study in the latest edition of Nature.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Planet Spotting

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The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia counted 548 confirmed extrasolar planets at 6 May 2011, while the NASA Star and Exoplanet Database (updated weekly) was today reporting 535. These are confirmed findings and the counts will significantly increase as more candidate exoplanets are assessed. For example, there were the 1,235 candidates announced by the Kepler mission in February, including 54 that may be in a habitable zone.

So what techniques are brought to bear to come up with these findings?

Pulsar timing – A pulsar is a neutron star with a polar jet roughly aligned with Earth. As the star spins and a jet comes into the line of sight of Earth, we detect an extremely regular pulse of light. Indeed, it is so regular that a slight wobble in the star’s motion, due to it possessing planets, is detectable.

The first extrasolar planets (i.e. exoplanets) were found in this way, actually three of them, around the pulsar PSR B1257+12 in 1992. Of course, this technique is only useful for finding planets around pulsars, none of which could be considered habitable – at least by current definitions – and, in all, only 4 such pulsar planets have been confirmed to date.

To look for planets around main sequence stars, we have…

The radial velocity method – This is similar in principle to detection via pulsar timing anomalies, where a planet or planets shift their star back and forth as they orbit, causing tiny changes in the star’s velocity relative to the Earth. These changes are generally measured as shifts in a star’s spectral lines, detectable via Doppler spectrometry, although detection through astrometry (direct detection of minute shifts in a star’s position in the sky) is also possible.

To date, the radial velocity method has been the most productive method for exoplanet detection (finding 500 of the 548), although it most frequently picks up massive planets in close stellar orbits (i.e. hot Jupiters) – and as a consequence these planets are over-represented in the current confirmed exoplanet population. Also, in isolation, the method is only effective up to about 160 light years from Earth – and only gives you the minimum mass, not the size, of the exoplanet.

To determine a planet’s size, you can use…

The transit method – The transit method is effective at both detecting exoplanets and determining their diameter – although it has a high rate of false positives. A star with a transiting planet, which partially blocks its light, is by definition a variable star. However, there are many different reasons why a star may be variable – many of which do not involve a transiting planet.

For this reason, the radial velocity method is often used to confirm a transit method finding. Thus, although 128 planets are attributed to the transit method – these are also part of the 500 counted for the radial velocity method. The radial velocity method gives you the planet’s mass – and the transit method gives you its size (diameter) – and with both these measures you can get the planet’s density. The planet’s orbital period (by either method) also gives you the distance of the exoplanet from its star, by Kepler’s (that is Johannes’) Third Law. And this is how we can determine whether a planet is in a star’s habitable zone.

It is also possible, from consideration of tiny variations in transit periodicity (i.e regularity) and the duration of transit, to identify additional smaller planets (in fact 8 have been found via this method, or 12 if you include pulsar timing detections). With increased sensitivity in the future, it may also be possible to identify exomoons in this way.

The transit method can also allow a spectroscopic analysis of a planet’s atmosphere. So, a key goal here is to find an Earth analogue in a habitable zone, then examine its atmosphere and monitor its electromagnetic broadcasts – in other words, scan for life signs.

Direct imaging of exoplanet Beta Pictoris b - assisted by nulling interferometry which removes Beta Pictoris' starlight from the image. The red flares are a circumstellar debris disk heated by the star. Credit: ESO.

To find planets in wider orbits, you could try…

Direct imaging – This is challenging since a planet is a faint light source near a very bright light source (the star). Nonetheless, 24 have been found this way so far. Nulling interferometry, where the starlight from two observations is effectively cancelled out through destructive interference, is an effective way to detect any fainter light sources normally hidden by the star’s light.

Gravitational lensing – A star can create a narrow gravitational lens and hence magnify a distant light source – and if a planet around that star is in just the right position to slightly skew this lensing effect, it can make its presence known. Such an event is relatively rare – and then has to be confirmed through repeated observations. Nonetheless, this method has detected 12 so far, which include smaller planets in wide orbits such as OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb.

These current techniques are not expected to deliver a complete census of all planets within current observational boundaries, but do offer us an impression of how many there may be out there. It has been speculatively estimated from the scant data available so far, that there may be 50 billion planets within our galaxy. However, a number of definitional issues remain to be fully thought through, such as where you draw the line between a planet versus a brown dwarf. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia currently set the limit at 20 Jupiter masses.

Anyhow, 548 confirmed exoplanets for only 19 years of planet spotting is not bad going. And the search continues.

Further reading:
The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia
The NASA Star and Exoplanet Database (NStED)
Methods of detecting extrasolar planets
The Kepler mission.