It’s Already Hard Enough to Block a Single Star’s Light to See its Planets. But Binary Stars? Yikes

Binary stars are common and imaging their planets will be a challenge. How can astronomers block all that light so they can see the planets? This artist's illustration shows the eclipsing binary star Kepler 16, as seen from the surface of an exoplanet in the system. Image Credit: NASA

Detecting exoplanets was frontier science not long ago. But now we’ve found over 5,000 of them, and we expect to find them around almost every star. The next step is to characterize these planets more fully in hopes of finding ones that might support life. Directly imaging them will be part of that effort.

But to do that, astronomers need to block out the light from the planets’ stars. That’s challenging in binary star systems.

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Could Next-Generation Telescopes See That Earth Has Life?

In this image, Earthshine lights up the dark portion of the lunar surface. Image Credit: NASA

While the Earth absorbs a lot of energy from the Sun, a lot of it is reflected back into space. The sunlight reflected from Earth is called Earthshine. We can see it on the dark portion of the Moon during a crescent Moon. The Farmer’s Almanac said it used to be called “the new Moon in the old Moon’s arms.

Earthshine is one instance of planetshine, and when we look at the light from distant exoplanets, we’re looking directly at their planetshine without it bouncing off another object.

If distant astronomers were looking at Earthshine the way we look at exoplanet shine, would the light tell them our planet is rippling with life?

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By Blocking the Light From a Star, Webb Reveals the Dusty Disk Surrounding It

These coronagraphic images of a disk around the star AU Microscopii, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), show compass arrows, scale bar, and color key for reference. Image Credit: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, Kellen Lawson (NASA-GSFC), Joshua E. Schlieder (NASA-GSFC) IMAGE PROCESSING: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

AU Microscopii is a small red dwarf star about 32 light-years away. It’s far too dim for the unaided human eye, but that doesn’t diminish its appeal. The star has at least two exoplanets and hosts a circumstellar debris disk.

It’s also young, only about 23 million years old, and it’s the second-closest pre-main sequence star to Earth. The JWST recently imaged the star and its surroundings and found something surprising.

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Worlds Bustling With Plantlife Should Shine in a Detectable Wavelength of Infrared

Artist's rendering of a super-Earth-type exoplanet, TOI 1452 b. Credit: Benoit Gougeon, Université de Montréal.

Future historians might look back on this time and call it the ‘exoplanet age.’ We’ve found over 5,000 exoplanets, and we’ll keep finding more. Next, we’ll move beyond just finding them, and we’ll turn our efforts to finding biosignatures, the special chemical fingerprints that living processes imprint on exoplanet atmospheres.

But there’s more to biosignatures than atmospheric chemistry. On a planet with lots of plant life, light can be a biosignature, too.

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NASA’s Exoplanet Watch Wants Your Help Studying Planets Around Other Stars

NASA's Exoplanet Watch allows citizen scientists to participate in exoplanet research. Credit: NASA

It’s no secret that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded since the turn of the century. Whereas astronomers knew less than a dozen exoplanets twenty years ago, thousands of candidates are available for study today. In fact, as of January 13th, 2023, a total of 5,241 planets have been confirmed in 3,916 star systems, with another 9,169 candidates awaiting confirmation. While opportunities for exoplanet research have grown exponentially, so too has the arduous task of sorting through the massive amounts of data involved.

Hence why astronomers, universities, research institutes, and space agencies have come to rely on citizen scientists in recent years. With the help of online resources, data-sharing, and networking, skilled amateurs can lend their time, energy, and resources to the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System. In recognition of their importance, NASA has launched Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by NASA’s Universe of Learning. This project lets regular people learn about exoplanets and get involved in the discovery and characterization process.

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Planetary Interiors in TRAPPIST-1 System Could be Affected by Stellar Flares

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, an international team of researchers led by the University of Cologne in Germany examined how stellar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) erupted by the TRAPPIST-1 star could affect the interior heating of its orbiting exoplanets. This study holds the potential to help us better understand how solar flares affect planetary evolution. The TRAPPIST-1 system is an exolanetary system located approximately 39 light-years from Earth with at least seven potentially rocky exoplanets in orbit around a star that has 12 times less mass than our own Sun. Since the parent star is much smaller than our own Sun, then the the planetary orbits within the TRAPPIST-1 system are much smaller than our own solar system, as well. So, how can this study help us better understand the potential habitability of planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system?

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Astronomers Scanned 12 Planets for Alien Signals While They Were in Front of Their Stars

TOI 1338 b is a circumbinary planet orbiting its two stars. It was discovered by TESS. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), part of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope. Between its 100-meter dish (328-foot), unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy, the GBT provides unprecedented sensitivity in the millimeter to meter wavelengths – very high to extremely high frequency (VHF to EHF). Since 2017, it also became one of the main instruments used by Breakthrough Listen and other institutes engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Recently, an international team of researchers from the SETI Institute, Breakthrough Listen, and multiple universities scanned twelve exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). Their observations were timed to coincide with the planets passing in front of their sun relative to the observer (i.e., making a transit). While the survey did not detect any definitive evidence of technosignatures, they did identify two radio signals of interest that warrant follow-up observation. This new technique could vastly expand the field of SETI and create all kinds of opportunities for future research.

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Hubble and Spitzer Team up to Find a Pair of Waterworld Exoplanets

Artist’s impression of a water world, where half of its mass consists of water. Just like our Moon, the planet is bound to its star by tidal forces and always shows the same face to its host star. Credit: Pilar Montañés

As of December 19th, 2022, 5,227 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,908 systems, with over 9,000 more awaiting confirmation. While most of these planets are Jupiter- or Neptune-sized gas giants or rocky planets many times the size of Earth (Super-Earths), a statistically significant number have been planets where water makes up a significant part of their mass fraction – aka. “water worlds.” These planets are unlike anything we’ve seen in the Solar System and raise several questions about planet formation in our galaxy.

In a recent study, an international team led by researchers from the University of Montreal’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) found evidence of two water worlds in a single planetary system located about 218 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. Based on their densities, the team determined that these exoplanets (Kepler-138c and Kepler-138d) are lighter than rocky “Earth-like” ones but heavier than gas-dominated ones. The discovery was made using data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the venerable Hubble Space Telescope.

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Do Exoplanet Scientists Have Favorite Exoplanets?

Artist rendition of the PSR B1257+12. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt)

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!

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What’s the Best Mix of Oceans to Land for a Habitable Planet?

A new study asks what ratio of land to ocean is best for habitability? Image Credit: Reto Stöckli, Render by Robert Simmon. Based on data from the MODIS Science Team

Earth is about 29% land and 71% oceans. How significant is that mix for habitability? What does it tell us about exoplanet habitability?

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