Beyond the Solar System

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You are probably somewhat familiar with our Solar System. At least you most likely know that there are eight planets in it, including the Earth, the Sun, moons, and a number of other objects like Pluto and asteroids. However, there is a lot more beyond the Solar System of which you may not be aware.

Our galaxy is the Milky Way Galaxy, but there are also other ones including the Andromeda Galaxy. Each galaxy is a system composed of different star systems, stellar remains, and interstellar medium. Although astronomers are not certain, they estimate that there are one hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Between the galaxies is intergalactic space, which has a thin gas in it. It is no wonder that the universe is considered to be infinite when you consider how large our Solar System is and that this Solar System is just one of many in our galaxy. This really puts into perspective exactly how small the Earth, and we, are in the big picture.

The Milky Way galaxy has many stars in it. Beyond our Solar System is interstellar medium and more stars along with their star systems. Interstellar medium is the vacuum of space between different star systems, although the space is not actually an empty vacuum. It has dust and other particles in it in addition to cosmic rays and magnetic fields.

Astronomers have already discovered many extrasolar planets – planets beyond our Solar System that orbit stars other than our own. The first extrasolar planet’s existence was not confirmed until 1995, because technology was not advanced enough to detect these distant planets. Since then, 357 extrasolar planets, also known as exoplanets, have been discovered. It is estimated that only a small percentage of stars have planets, and most of these stars are similar to our own Sun.

At first, the only extrasolar planets that astronomers could find were gas giants similar to Jupiter. However, in recent years, they have found planets similar to Neptune. This strengthened the hope of astronomers who were looking for Earth-like planets. In fact, some astronomers believe that they have found Earth-like planets in the past few years. Astronomers are still trying to find a way to determine whether there is life on these planets.

While there is still much more to learn in our own Solar System – the Moon is the only place besides Earth humans have actually set foot – there are also many things to discover beyond our Solar System. Not just other stars, but also other galaxies if we can reach them.

Universe Today has articles on finding a cyclops galaxy and astronomers could detect oceans on extrasolar planets.

For more information, try lightest exoplanet discovered and top 10 most intriguing extrasolar planets.

Astronomy Cast has an episode that deals with the extrasolar planets.

References:
NASA: Milky Way Galaxy
NASA Science

Exoplanet Has Oddball Orbit

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In what might be a evidence of planetary billiards, astronomers have found an exoplanet with an extremely odd orbit. The question is, was this planet the cue ball or the object ball? While most planets orbit around a star’s mid-section, this one – called XO-3b — is tilted about 37 degrees from the star’s equator. It’s also a massive planet, about 10 times the size of Jupiter. Such a misalignment must have occurred as a result of a disturbance, such as a collision with another object, sometime after the planet’s formation. But astronomers say they don’t yet know what caused the unusual orbit of XO-3b.

Detecting this oddball orbit required a combination of good luck, advanced technology and ingenious methodology. The planet was discovered back in 2007 using the transit method by measuring how the star is dimmed by the planet passing in through the line-of-sight between Earth and the star.

Joshua Winn explains the planet XO-3b's tilted orbit. Credit: MIT
Joshua Winn explains the planet XO-3b's tilted orbit. Credit: MIT

Using the Keck I telescope, detecting the planet itself was relatively easy, as it dimmed the star’s light by about 1 percent. But to go one step further and measure the angle of its orbit, meant that “we have to be sneaky about it,” said MIT physicist Joshua Winn, who led the team that measured the planet’s tilted orbit. It turns out that if a planet crosses the star’s disk at an angle to the star’s own rotation, it causes a distinctive pattern of change in the overall color of the star, as measured by a highly sensitive spectrograph, because of the Doppler shifts caused by the star’s rotation.

Hints of such a spectral signature were seen last year by another team, but that team acknowledged that they could not be confident of their result. The new observations, carried out by Winn and his team in February at the Keck I Observatory in Hawaii, provided a clear, solid measurement of the planet’s distinctive tilt, determining the angle of the orbit to be about 37 degrees from the star’s equator. The results are reported in a paper in the Astrophysical Journal, which was recently posted online and will be published in the journal’s August issue.

A majority of the exoplanet discovered so far are very large planets comparable to the gas giants in our solar system, but orbiting their stars much closer in (and thus faster). That’s because the method used to detect these planets makes it much easier to detect such close-in giants than smaller or more distant ones. In the case of XO-3b, it is about 13 times as massive as Jupiter, yet orbits its star with a period, or “year,” of just 3.5 days (Jupiter, by contrast, takes almost 12 years for an orbit). That size and closeness to its star are “unusual, even by the standards of exoplanets,” Winn says.

A collision between planets,like the one illustrated, could have caused the odd orbit of XO-3b. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A collision between planets,like the one illustrated, could have caused the odd orbit of XO-3b. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Such “hot Jupiters” – so named because they resemble the solar system’s largest planet, but would be much hotter because of their proximity to their parent stars – could not have formed in the places they are seen now, according to accepted planet-formation theory. They must have formed much further out from the star, then migrated inward to their present positions. Astronomers have come up with different mechanisms to account for the migration: the gravitational attraction of other planets as they passed close by, or the attraction of the disk of dust and gas from which the star and its planets formed.

Close encounters with other planets could greatly amplify a slight initial tilt, but attraction from the disk of material could not. Likely, a cataclysmic event occurred in this planet’s past.

Read the team’s paper.

Source: MIT

The Milky Way Could have Billions of Earths

With the upcoming launch in March of the Kepler mission to find extrasolar planets, there is quite a lot of buzz about the possibility of finding habitable planets outside of our Solar System. Kepler will be the first satellite telescope with the capability to find Earth-size and smaller planets. At the most recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago, Dr. Alan Boss is quoted by numerous media outlets as saying that there could be billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone, and that we may find an Earth-like planet orbiting a large proportion of the stars in the Universe.

“There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those — perhaps half of them would have Earth-like planets. So, I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20, or 30 light years of the Sun,” Dr. Boss said in an AAAS podcast interview.

Dr. Boss is an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and is the author of The Crowded Universe, a book on the likelihood of finding life and habitable planets outside of our Solar System.

“Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited. But I think that most likely the nearby ‘Earths’ are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago,” Dr. Boss told the BBC. In other words, it’s more likely that bacteria-like lifeforms abound, rather than more advanced alien life.

This sort of postulation about the existence of extraterrestrial life (and intelligence) falls under the paradigm of the Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake. The Drake Equation incorporates all of the variables one should take into account when trying to calculate the number of technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. Depending on what numbers you put into the equation, the answer ranges from zero to trillions. There is wide speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe.

To date, the closest thing to an Earth-sized planet discovered outside of our Solar System is CoRoT-Exo-7b, with a diameter of less than twice that of the Earth.

The speculation by Dr. Boss and others will be put to the test later this year when the Kepler satellite gets up and running. Set to launch on March 9th, 2009, the Kepler mission will utilize a 0.95 meter telescope to view one section of the sky containing over 100,000 stars for the entirety of the mission, which will last at least 3.5 years.

The prospect of life existing elsewhere is exciting, to be sure, and we’ll be keeping you posted here on Universe Today when any of the potentially billions of Earth-like planets are discovered!

Source: BBC, EurekAlert

How Big Do Planets Get?

Question: How Big Can Planets Get?

Answer: Here in the Solar System, we have three kinds of planets: the inner terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the ice planets. Sadly, Pluto is no longer a planet, so we won’t deal with that here. We know how big our planets are, but how big can planets actually get in other Solar Systems. What are the biggest possible planets?

Let’s start with terrestrial planets, like our Earth. We’ll set the size of the Earth and 1 Earth radius, and the mass as 1 Earth mass. We’ve seen that terrestrial planets can get smaller, with Mars and Mercury, and astronomers have detected larger terrestrial planets orbiting other stars.

The largest known rocky planet is thought to be Gliese 436 c. This is probably a rocky world with about 5 Earth masses and 1.5 times our planet’s radius. Amazingly, this planet is thought to be within its star’s habitable zone.

What’s the largest possible rocky planet? For this I put in an email to Dr. Sean Raymond, a post doctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at the University of Colorado. Here’s what he had to say:

“The largest “terrestrial” planet is generally considered the one before you get too thick of an atmosphere, which happens at about 5-10 Earth masses (something like 2 Earth radii). Those planets are more Earth-like than Neptune-like.”

Gas giants, of course, can come much larger. Jupiter is 317 times more massive than Earth, and 11 times larger. You could fit 1,400 Earths inside Jupiter.

Thebiggest planet in the Universe (at the time of this writing) is TrES-4, which is located 1,400 light years away in the constellation Hercules. The planet has been measured to be 1.4 times the size of Jupiter, but it only has 0.84 times Jupiter’s mass. With such a low density, the media was calling TrES-4 the puffy planet.

And once again, how large can they get? Again, here’s Dr. Raymond:

“In terms of gaseous planets, once they reach 15 Jupiter masses or so there is enough pressure in the core to ignite deuterium fusion, so those are considered “brown dwarfs” rather than planets.”

What is the biggest planet in the Solar System?

Why Haven’t Planets Been Detected Around Alpha Centauri?

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Question: Why aren’t astronomers looking for planets around nearby stars like Alpha Centauri?
Answer: That’s a great question. Since Alpha Centauri is only a little over 4 light-years away, why aren’t astronomers studying it for planets, instead of the more distant stars.

Astronomers have included stars like Alpha Centauri in their search for extrasolar planets, they just haven’t found them yet. That’s because the techniques used to find extra solar planets require very large planets orbiting very close to their parent stars.

The first technique is called the radial velocity method. This is where the gravity of the planet yanks its parent star back and forth. The changes in the star’s velocity are measurable in the light that reaches the Earth.

The second technique looks for transits. This is where the planet passes in front of the parent star, dimming it slightly. By measuring the amount the light dims, astronomers are able to know if there’s a planet there, calculate its size and even determine what’s in its atmosphere.

A third technique detects microlensing events. A closer star focuses the light from a more distant star with its gravity. From Earth, we see a flare in brightness as the two stars line up perfectly. If the closer star has a planet orbiting it, that will change the light curve that astronomers detect, allowing them to calculate the size of the planet.

Most of the planets discovered to date are known as Hot Jupiters. These are planets much larger than Jupiter that orbit within the orbit of Mercury.

A team of astronomers led by Javiera Guedes from the University of California think that an Earth-sized planet should be detectable orbiting Alpha Centauri. They’re working to get a single dedicated telescope to watch the star, and work out if there are planets there. According to their calculations, it should only take about 5 years of intense observations by a dedicated telescope to work out the answer.

Rocky Planets May Form Around Most Sun-like Stars

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Astronomers have found numerous Jupiter-like planets orbiting other stars. But because of the limits of our current technology, they haven’t yet found any other terrestrial Earth-like planets out in the universe. But new findings from the Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that terrestrial planets might form around many, if not most, of the nearby sun-like stars in our galaxy. So perhaps, other worlds with the potential for life might be more common than we thought.

A group of astronomers led by Michael Meyer of the University of Tucson, Arizona used Spitzer to survey six sets of stars with masses comparable to our sun, and grouped them by age.

“We wanted to study the evolution of the gas and dust around stars similar to the sun and compare the results with what we think the solar system looked like at earlier stages during its evolution,” Meyer said. Our sun is about 4.6 billion years old.

They found that at least 20 percent, and possibly as many as 60 percent, of stars similar to the sun are candidates for forming rocky planets.

The Spitzer telescope does not detect planets directly. Instead, using its infrared capability, it detects dust — the rubble left over from collisions as planets form — at a range of infrared wavelengths. Because dust closer to the star is hotter than dust farther from the star, the “warm” dust indicates material orbiting the star at distances comparable to the distance between Earth and Jupiter.

Meyer said that about 10 to 20 percent of the stars in the four youngest age groups shows ‘warm’ dust, but not in stars older than 300 million years. That is comparable to the theoretical models of our own solar system, which suggests that Earth formed over a span of 10 to 50 million years from collisions between smaller bodies.

But the numbers are vague on how many stars are actually forming planets because there’s more than one way to interpret the Spitzer data. “An optimistic scenario would suggest that the biggest, most massive disks would undergo the runaway collision process first and assemble their planets quickly. That’s what we could be seeing in the youngest stars. Their disks live hard and die young, shining brightly early on, then fading,” Meyer said.

“However, smaller, less massive disks will light up later. Planet formation in this case is delayed because there are fewer particles to collide with each other.”

If this is correct and the most massive disks form their planets first and then the smaller disks take 10 to 100 times longer, then up to 62 percent of the surveyed stars have formed, or may be forming, planets. “The correct answer probably lies somewhere between the pessimistic case of less than 20 percent and optimistic case of more than 60 percent,” Meyer said.

In October 2007, another group of astronomers used similar Spitzer data to observe the formation of a star system 424 light-years away, with another possible Earth-like planet being created.

More definitive data on formation of rocky planets will come with the launch the Kepler mission in 2009, which will search to find if terrestrial planets like Earth could be common around stars like the sun.

Original News Source: JPL Press Release

Astronomers Could Detect Oceans on Extrasolar Planets

Imagine if astronomers could tell the difference between Earth-like extrasolar planets just by seeing the reflected light from their oceans? That sounds like science fiction, but a team of researchers have proposed that it’s really possible to detect the shape of the light curve glinting off an extrasolar planet and know if it has oceans.

This ground-breaking (water splashing?) idea was written in a recent journal article by D.M. Williams and E. Gaidos, entitled Detecting the Glint of Starlight on the Oceans of Distant Planets published January, 2008 in the Arxiv prepress e-Print archive.

The article describes the methods astronomers could use to detect the glint, or water reflection, from the “disk-averaged signal of an Earth-like planet in crescent phase.” They used the Earth as an example, and generated a series of light curves for a planet with our orientation and axial tilt.

They calculated that planets partially covered by water should appear much brighter when they’re near the crescent phase because light from the parent star reflects off the oceans very efficiently at just the right angles. By watching an extrasolar planet move through its orbit, its light curve should give off the telltale signature that there are oceans present.

According to their calculations, this method should work for about 50% of the visible planets. Furthermore, it should be possible to measure the ratio of land to water, and even get a sense of continents.

In order to test their theories, they’re planning to use remote observations of Earth, using interplanetary spacecraft. This will demonstrate if Earth can be observed at extreme phase angles—orbiting spacecraft around or on route to Mars.

And then the upcoming planet hunting missions, such as Darwin and the Terrestrial Planet Finder (if it ever gets completed) should be able to make the direct analysis of Earth-sized worlds orbiting other stars. Just by measuring the brightness, they should know if there are oceans, boosting the prospects for life.

Original Source: Arxiv