Thanks to a Massive Release from Gaia, we now Know Where 1.7 BILLION Stars are in the Milky Way

On December 19th, 2013, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft took to space with one of the most ambitious missions ever. Over the course of its planned 5-year mission (which was recently extended), this space observatory would map over a billion stars, planets, comets, asteroids and quasars in order to create the largest and most precise 3D catalog of the Milky Way ever created.

The first release of Gaia data, which took place in September 2016, contained the distances and motions of over two million stars. But the second data release, which took place on April 25th, 2018, is even more impressive. Included in the release are the positions, distance indicators and motions of more than one billion stars, asteroids within our Solar System, and even stars beyond the Milky Way.

Whereas the first data release was based on just over a year’s worth of observations, the new data release covers a period of about 22 months – which ran from July 25th, 2014, to May 23rd, 2016. Preliminary analysis of this data has revealed fine details about 1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way and how they move, which is essential to understanding how our galaxy evolved over time.

ESA’s Gaia is currently on a five-year mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier.

As Günther Hasinger, the ESA Director of Science, explained in a recent ESA press release:

The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy. Gaia is an ambitious mission that relies on a huge human collaboration to make sense of a large volume of highly complex data. It demonstrates the need for long-term projects to guarantee progress in space science and technology and to implement even more daring scientific missions of the coming decades.

The precision of Gaia‘s instruments has allowed for measurements that are so accurate that it was possible to separate the parallax of stars – the apparent shift caused by the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – from their movements through the galaxy. Of the 1.7 billion stars cataloged, the parallax and velocity (aka. proper motion) of more than 1.3 billion were measured and listed.

For about 10% of these, the parallax measurements were so accurate that astronomers can directly estimate distances to the individual stars. As Anthony Brown of Leiden University, who is also the chair of the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium Executive Board, explained:

The second Gaia data release represents a huge leap forward with respect to ESAs Hipparcos satellite, Gaias predecessor and the first space mission for astrometry, which surveyed some 118 000 stars almost thirty years agoThe sheer number of stars alone, with their positions and motions, would make Gaias new catalogue already quite astonishing. But there is more: this unique scientific catalogue includes many other data types, with information about the properties of the stars and other celestial objects, making this release truly exceptional.

In addition to the proper motions of stars, the catalog provides information on a wide range of topics that will be of interest to astronomers and astrophysicists. These include brightness and color measurements of nearly all of the 1.7 billion stars cataloged, as well as information on how the brightness and color change for half a million variable stars over time.

It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about 100 million, and the effect interstellar dust has on 87 million. The Gaia data also contains information on objects in our Solar System, which includes the positions of 14,000 known asteroids (which will allow for the precise determination of their orbits).

Beyond the Milky Way, Gaia obtained more accurate measurements of the positions of half a million distant quasars – bright galaxies that emit massive amounts of energy due to the presence of a supermassive black hole at their centers. In the past, quasars have been used as a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue based on radio waves.

However, this information will now be available at optical wavelengths for the first time. This, and other developments made possible by Gaia, could revolutionize how we study our galaxy and the Universe. As Antonella Vallenari, from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), the Astronomical Observatory of Padua, Italy, and the deputy chair of the Data Processing Consortium Executive Board, indicated:

The new Gaia data are so powerful that exciting results are just jumping at us. For example, we have built the most detailed Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stars ever made on the full sky and we can already spot some interesting trends. It feels like we are inaugurating a new era of Galactic archaeology.

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which is named after the two astronomers who devised it in the early 20th century, is fundamental to the study of stellar populations and their evolution. Based on four million stars that were selected from the catalog (all of which are withing five thousand light-years from the Sun), scientist were able to reveal many fine details about stars beyond our Solar System for the first time.

Along with measurements of their velocities, the Gaia Hertzsprung-Russell diagram enables astronomers to distinguish between populations of stars that are of different ages, are located in different regions of the Milky Way (i.e. the disk and the halo), and that formed in different ways. These include fast moving stars that were previously thought to belong to the halo, but are actually part of two stellar populations.

“Gaia will greatly advance our understanding of the Universe on all cosmic scales,” said Timo Prusti, a Gaia project scientist at ESA. “Even in the neighborhood of the Sun, which is the region we thought we understood best, Gaia is revealing new and exciting features.”

For instance, for a subset of stars within a few thousand light-years of the Sun, Gaia measured their velocity in all three dimensions. From this, it has been determined that they follow a similar pattern to stars that are orbiting the galaxy at similar speeds. The cause of these patterns will be the subject of future research, as it is unclear whether its caused by our galaxy itself or are the result of interactions with smaller galaxies that merged with us in the past.

Last, but not least, Gaia data will be used to learn more about the orbits of 75 globular clusters and 12 dwarf galaxies that revolve around the Milky Way. This information will shed further light on the evolution of our galaxy, the gravitational forces affecting it, and the role played by dark matter. As Fred Jansen, the Gaia mission manager at ESA, put it:

Gaia is astronomy at its finest. Scientists will be busy with this data for many years, and we are ready to be surprised by the avalanche of discoveries that will unlock the secrets of our Galaxy.

The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year). A series of scientific papers describing what has been learned from this latest release will also appear in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

From the evolution of stars to the evolution of our galaxy, the second Gaia data release is already proving to be a boon for astronomers and astrophysicists. Even after the mission concludes, we can expect scientists will still be analyzing the data and learning a great deal more about the structure and evolution of our Universe.

Further Reading: ESA

Chinese Astronomers Spot Two New Hypervelocity Stars

Most stars in our galaxy behave predictably, orbiting around the center of the Milky Way at speeds of about 100 km/s (62 mi/s). But some stars achieve velocities that are significantly greater, to the point that they are even able to escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy. These are known as hypervelocity stars (HVS), a rare type of star that is believed to be the result of interactions with a supermassive black hole (SMBH).

The existence of HVS is something that astronomers first theorized in the late 1980s, and only 20 have been identified so far. But thanks to a new study by a team of Chinese astronomers, two new hypervelocity stars have been added to that list. These stars, which have been designated LAMOST-HVS2 and LAMOST-HVS3, travel at speeds of up to 1,000 km/s (620 mi/s) and are thought to have originated in the center of our galaxy.

The study which describes the team’s findings, titled “Discovery of Two New Hypervelocity Stars From the LAMOST Spectroscopic Surveys“, recently appeared online. Led by Yang Huang of the South-Western Institute for Astronomy Research at Yunnan University in Kunming, China, the team relied on data from Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fibre Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) to detect these two new hypervelocity stars.

Footprint of the LAMOST pilot survey and the first three years’ general survey. Credit: LAMOST

Astronomers estimates that only 1000 HVS exist within the Milky Way. Given that there are as many as 200 billion stars in our galaxy, that’s just 0.0000005 % of the galactic population. While these stars are thought to originate in the center of our galaxy – supposedly as a result of interaction with our SMBH, Sagittarius A* – they manage to travel pretty far, sometimes even escaping our galaxy altogether.

It is for this very reason that astronomers are so interested in HVS. Given their speed, and the vast distances they can cover, tracking them and creating a database of their movements could provide constraints on the shape of the dark matter halo of our galaxy. Hence why Dr. Huang and his colleagues began sifting through LAMOST data to find evidence of new HVS.

Located in Hebei Province, northwestern China, the LAMOST observatory is operated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Over the course of five years, this observatory conducted a spectroscopic survey of 10 million stars in the Milky Way, as well as millions of galaxies. In June of 2017, LAMOST released its third Data Release (DR3), which included spectra obtained during the pilot survey and its first three years’ of regular surveys.

Containing high-quality spectra of 4.66 million stars and the stellar parameters of an additional 3.17 million, DR3 is currently the largest public spectral set and stellar parameter catalogue in the world. Already, LAMOST data had been used to identify one hypervelocity star, a B1IV/V-type (main sequence blue subgiant/subdwarf) star that was 11 Solar Masses, 13490 times as bright as our Sun, and had an effective temperature of 26,000 K (25,727 °C; 46,340 °F).

Artist’s impression of hypervelocity stars (HVSs) speeding through the Galaxy. Credit: ESA

This HVS was designated LAMOST-HSV1, in honor of the observatory. After detecting two new HVSs in the LAMOST data, these stars were designated as LAMOST-HSV2 and LAMOST-HSV3. Interestingly enough, these newly-discovered HVSs are also main sequence blue subdwarfs – or a B2V-type and B7V-type star, respectively.

Whereas HSV2 is 7.3 Solar Masses, is 2399 times as luminous as our Sun, and has an effective temperature of 20,600 K (20,327 °C; 36,620 °F), HSV3 is 3.9 Solar Masses, is 309 times as luminous as the Sun, and has an effective temperature of 14,000 K (24,740 °C; 44,564 °F). The researchers also considered the possible origins of all three HVSs based on their spatial positions and flight times.

In addition to considering that they originated in the center of the Milky Way, they also consider alternate possibilities. As they state in their study:

“The three HVSs are all spatially associated with known young stellar structures near the GC, which supports a GC origin for them. However, two of them, i.e. LAMOST-HVS1 and 2, have life times smaller than their flight times, indicating that they do not have enough time to travel from the GC to the current positions unless they are blue stragglers (as in the case of HVS HE 0437-5439). The third one (LAMOST-HVS3) has a life time larger than its flight time and thus does not have this problem.

In other words, the origins of these stars is still something of a mystery. Beyond the idea that they were sped up by interacting with the SMBH at the center of our galaxy, the team also considered other possibilities that have suggested over the years.

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft, looking into the heart of the Milky Way  Galaxy. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab/ESO/S. Brunier

As they state in these study, these “include the tidal debris of an accreted and disrupted dwarf galaxy (Abadi et al. 2009), the surviving companion stars of Type Ia supernova (SNe Ia) explosions (Wang & Han 2009), the result of dynamical interaction between multiple stars (e.g, Gvaramadze et al. 2009), and the runaways ejected from the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), assuming that the latter hosts a MBH (Boubert et al. 2016).”

In the future, Huang and his colleagues indicate that their study will benefit from additional information that will be provided by the ESA’s Gaia mission, which they claim will shed additional light on how HVS behave and where they come from. As they state in their conclusions:

“The upcoming accurate proper motion measurements by Gaia should provide a direct constraint on their origins. Finally, we expect more HVSs to be discovered by the ongoing LAMOST spectroscopic surveys and thus to provide further constraint on the nature and ejection mechanisms of HVSs.”

Further Reading: arXiv

The Orbit of Earth will be Hiding Earth 2.0

In the hunt for extra-solar planets, astronomers and enthusiasts can be forgiven for being a bit optimistic. In the course of discovering thousands of rocky planets, gas giants, and other celestial bodies, is it too much to hope that we might someday find a genuine Earth-analog? Not just an “Earth-like” planet (which implies a rocky body of comparable size) but an actual Earth 2.0?

This has certainly been one of the goals of exoplanet-hunters, who are searching nearby star systems for planets that are not only rocky, but orbit within their star’s habitable zone, show signs of an atmosphere and have water on their surfaces. But according to a new study by Alexey G. Butkevich – a astrophysicist from the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia – our attempts to discover Earth 2.0 could be hindered by Earth itself!

Butkevich’s study, titled “Astrometric Exoplanet Detectability and the Earth Orbital Motion“, was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. For the sake of his study, Dr. Butkevich examined how changes in the Earth’s own orbital position could make it more difficult to conduct measurements of a star’s motion around its system’s barycenter.

Artist’s impression of how an Earth-like planet might look from space. Credit: ESO.

This method of exoplanet detection, where the motion of a star around the star system’s center of mass (barycenter), is known as the Astrometic Method. Essentially, astronomers attempt to determine if the presence of gravitational fields around a star (i.e. planets) are causing the star to wobble back and forth. This is certainly true of the Solar System, where our Sun is pulled back and forth around a common center by the pull of all its planets.

In the past, this technique has been used to identify binary stars with a high degree of precision. In recent decades, it has been considered as a viable method for exoplanet hunting. This is no easy task since the wobbles are rather difficult to detect at the distances involved. And until recently, the level of precision required to detect these shifts was at the very edge of instrument sensitivity.

This is rapidly changing, thanks to improved instruments that allow for accuracy down to the microarcsecond. A good example of this is the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft, which was deployed in 2013 to catalog and measure the relative motions of billions of stars in our galaxy. Given that it can conduct measurements at 10 microarcseconds, it is believed that this mission could conduct astrometric measurements for the sake of finding exoplanets.

But as Butkevich explained, there are other problems when it comes to this method. “The standard astrometric model is based on the assumption that stars move uniformly relative to the solar system barycentre,” he states. But as he goes on to explain, when examining the effects of Earth’s orbital motion on astrometric detection, there is a correlation between the Earth’s orbit and the position of a star relative to its system barycenter.

Kepler-22b, an exoplanet with an Earth-like radius that was discovery within the habitable zone of its host star. Credit: NASA

To put it another way, Dr. Butkevich examined whether or not the motion of our planet around the Sun, and the Sun’s motion around its center of mass, could have a cancelling effect on parallax measurements of other stars. This would effectively make any measurements of a star’s motion, designed to see if there were any planets orbiting it, effectively useless. Or as Dr. Butkevich stated in his study:

“It is clear from simple geometrical considerations that in such systems the orbital motion of the host star, under certain conditions, may be observationally close to the parallactic effect or even indistinguishable from it. It means that the orbital motion may be partially or fully absorbed by the parallax parameters.”

This would be especially true of systems where the orbital period of a planet was one year, and which had an orbit that placed it close to the Sun’s ecliptic – i.e. like Earth’s own orbit! So basically, astronomers would not be able to detect Earth 2.0 using astrometric measurements, because Earth’s own orbit and the Sun’s own wobble would make detection close to impossible.

As Dr. Butkevich states in his conclusions:

“We present an analysis of effects of the Earth orbital motion on astrometric detectability of exoplanetary systems. We demonstrated that, if period of a planet is close to one year and its orbital plane is nearly parallel to the ecliptic, orbital motion of the host may be entirely or partially absorbed by the parallax parameter. If full absorption occurs, the planet is astrometrically undetectable.”
Future surveys for exoplanets could be complicated by the Sun’s own motion around its barycenter. Credit: NASA

Luckily, exoplanet-hunters have a myriad of other methods too choose from, including direct and indirect measurements. And when it comes to spotting planets around neighboring stars, two of the most effective involve measuring Doppler shifts in stars (aka. the Radial Velocity Method) and dips in a star’s brightness (aka. the Transit Method).

Nevertheless, these methods suffer from their own share of drawbacks, and knowing their limitations is the first step in refining them. In that respect, Dr. Butkevich’s study has echoes of heliocentrism and relativity, where we are reminded that our own reference point is not fixed in space, and can influence our observations.

The hunt for exoplanets is also expected to benefit greatly from deployment of next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and others.

Further Reading: arXiv

Now We Know When Stars Will Be Passing Through the Oort Cloud

To our Solar System, “close-encounters” with other stars happen regularly – the last occurring some 70,000 years ago and the next likely to take place 240,000 to 470,000 years from now. While this might sound like a “few and far between” kind of thing, it is quite regular in cosmological terms. Understanding when these encounters will happen is also important since they are known to cause disturbances in the Oort Cloud, sending comets towards Earth.

Thanks to a new study by Coryn Bailer-Jones, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, astronomers now have refined estimates on when the next close-encounters will be happening. After consulting data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft, he concluded that over the course of the next 5 million years, that the Solar System can expect 16 close encounters, and one particularly close one!

For the sake of the study – which recently appeared in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics under the title The Completeness-Corrected Rate of Stellar Encounters with the Sun From the First Gaia Data Release” – Dr. Bailer Jones used Gaia data to track the movements of more than 300,000 stars in our galaxy to see if they would ever pass close enough to the Solar System to cause a disturbance.

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier

As noted, these types of disturbances have happened many times throughout the history of the Solar System. In order to dislodge icy objects from their orbit in the Oort Cloud – which extends out to about 15 trillion km (100,000 AU) from our Sun – and send them hurling into the inner Solar System, it is estimated that a star would need to pass within 60 trillion km (37 trillion mi; 400,000 AU) of our Sun.

While these close encounters pose no real risk to our Solar System, they have been known to increase comet activity. As Dr. Bailer-Jones explained to Universe Today via email:

“Their potential influence is to shake up the Oort cloud of comets surrounding our Sun, which could result in some being pushed into the inner solar system where is chance they could impact with the Earth. But the long-term probability of one such comet hitting the Earth is probably lower than the probability the Earth is hit by a near-Earth asteroid. So they don’t pose much more danger.”

One of the goals of the Gaia mission, which launched back in 2013, was to collect precise data on stellar positions and motions over the course of its five-year mission. After 14 months in space, the first catalogue was released, which contained information on more than a billion stars. This catalogue also contained the distances and motions across the sky of over two million stars.

By combining this new data with existing information, Dr. Bailer-Jones was able to calculate the motions of some 300,000 stars relative to the Sun over a five million year period. As he explained:

“I traced the orbits of stars observed by Gaia (in the so-called TGAS catalogue) backwards and forwards in time, to see when and how close they would come to the Sun. I then computed the so-called ‘completeness function’ of TGAS to find out what fraction of encounters would have been missed by the survey: TGAS doesn’t see fainter stars (and the very brightest stars are also omitted at present, for technical reasons), but using a simple model of the Galaxy I can estimate how many stars it is missing. Combining this with the actual number of encounters found, I could estimate the total rate of stellar encounters (i.e. including the ones not actually seen). This is necessarily a rather rough estimate, as it involves a number of assumptions, not least the model for what is not seen.”

From this, he was able to come up with a general estimate of the rate of stellar encounters over the past 5 million years, and for the next 5 million. He determined that the overall rate is about 550 stars per million years coming within 150 trillion km, and about 20 coming closer than 30 trillion km. This works out to about one potential close encounter every 50,000 years or so.

Dr. Bailor-Jones also determined that of the 300,000 stars he observed, 97 of them would pass within 150 trillion km (93 trillion mi; 1 million AU) of our Solar System, while 16 would come within 60 trillion km. While this would be close enough to disturb the Oort Cloud, only one star would get particularly close. That star is Gliese 710, a K-type yellow dwarf located about 63 light years from Earth which is about half the size of our Sun.

Stars speeding through the Galaxy. Credit: ESA

According to Dr. Bailer-Jones’ study, this star will pass by our Solar System in 1.3 million years, and at a distance of just 2.3 trillion km (1.4 trillion mi; 16 ,000AU). This will place it well within the Oort Cloud, and will likely turn many icy planetesimals into long-period comets that could head towards Earth. What’s more, Gliese 710 has a relatively slow velocity compared to other stars in our galaxy.

Whereas the average relative velocity of stars is estimated to be around 100.000 km/h (62,000 mph) at their closest approach, Gliese 710 will will have a speed of 50,000 km/h (31,000 mph). As a result, the star will have plenty of time to exert its gravitational influence on the Oort Cloud, which could potentially send many, many comets towards Earth and the inner Solar System.

Over the past few decades, this star has been well-documented by astronomers, and they were already pretty certain that it would experience a close encounter with our Solar System in the future. However, previous calculations indicated that it would pass within 3.1 to 13.6 trillion km (1.9 to 8.45 trillion mi; 20,722 to 90,910 AU) from our star system – and with a 90% certainty. Thanks to this most recent study, these estimates have been refined to 1.5–3.2 trillion km, with 2.3 trillion km being the most likely.

Again, while it might sound like these passes are on too large of a timescale to be of concern, in terms of the astronomical history, its a regular occurrence. And while not every close encounter is guaranteed to send comets hurling our way, understanding when and how these encounters have happened is intrinsic to understanding the history and evolution of our Solar System.

Understanding when a close encounters might happen next is also vital. Assuming we are still around when another  takes place, knowing when it is likely to happen could allow us to prepare for the worst – i.e. if a comets is set on a collision course with Earth! Failing that, humanity could use this information to prepare a scientific mission to study the comets that are sent our way.

The second release of Gaia data is scheduled for next April, and will contain information on an estimated 1 billion stars. That’s 20 times as many stars as the first catalogue, and about 1% the total number of stars within the Milky Way Galaxy. The second catalog will also include information on much more distant stars, will which allow for reconstructions of up to 25 million years into the past and future.

As Dr. Bailer-Jones indicated, the release of Gaia data has helped astronomers considerably. “[I]t greatly improves on what we had before, in both number of stars and precision,” he said. “But this is really just a taster of what will come in the second data release in April 2018, when we will provide parallaxes and proper motions for around one billion stars (500 times as many as in the first data release).”

With every new release, estimates on the movements of the galaxy’s stars (and the potential for close encounters) will be refined further. It will also help us to chart when major comet activity took place within the Solar System, and how this might have played a role in the evolution of the planets and life itself.

Further Reading: ESA

Starshade Prepares To Image New Earths

Artist's concept of the prototype starshade, a giant structure designed to block the glare of stars so that future space telescopes can take pictures of planets. Credit: NASA/JPL

For countless generations, people have looked up at the stars and wondered if life exists somewhere out there, perhaps on planets much like ours. But it has only been in recent decades that we have been able to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in other star systems. In fact, between 1988 and April 20th of 2016, astronomers have been able to account for the existence of 2108 planets in 1350 different star systems, including 511 multiple planetary systems.

Most of these discoveries have taken place within just the past three years, thanks to improvements in our detection methods, and the deployment of the Kepler space observatory in 2009. Looking ahead, astronomers hope to improve on these methods even further with the introduction of the Starshade, a giant space structure designed to block the glare of stars, thus making it easier to find planets – and perhaps another Earth!

Continue reading “Starshade Prepares To Image New Earths”

What Are Extrasolar Planets?

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.

And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (to over 3000!)

Definition:

An extrasolar planet, also called an exoplanet, is a planet that orbits a star (i.e. is part of a solar system) other than our own. Our Solar System is only one among billions and many of them most likely have their own system of planets. As early as the sixteenth century, there have been astronomers who hypothesized of the existence of extrasolar planets.

The first recorded mention was made by Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, an early supporter of the Copernican theory. In addition to supporting the idea that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun (heliocentrism), he put forward the view that the fixed stars are similar to the Sun and are likewise accompanied by planets.

Credit: The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo (phl.upl.edu)
List of potentially habitable exoplanets discovered so far in our universe. Credit: phl.upl.edu

In the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton made a similar suggestion in the “General Scholium” section which concludes his Principia. Making a comparison to the Sun’s planets, he wrote “And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”

Since Newton’s time, various claims have been made, but which were rejected by the scientific community as false positives. In the 1980’s, some astronomers claimed that they had identified a some extrasolar planets in nearby star systems, but were unable to confirm their existence until years later.

First Discoveries:

One of the reasons why extrasolar planets are so difficult to detect is because they are even fainter than the stars they orbit. Additionally, these stars give off light that “washes” the planets out – i.e. obscures them from direct observation. As a result, the first discovery was not made until 1992 when astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail – using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – observed several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12.

It was not until 1995 that the first confirmation of an exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star was made. In this case, the planet observed was 51 Pegasi b, a giant planet found in a four-day orbit around the Sun-like star 51 Pegasi (approx 51 light years from our Sun).

Initially, most of the planets detected were gas giants similar to, or larger than, Jupiter – which led to the term “Super-Jupiter” being coined. Far from suggesting that gas giants were more common than rocky (i.e. “Earth-like“) planets, these findings were simply due to the fact that Jupiter-sized planets are simply easier to detect because of their size.

The Kepler Mission:

Named after the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, the Kepler space observatory was launched by NASA on March 7th, 2009 for the purpose of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. As part of NASA’s Discovery Program,  a series of relatively low-cost project focused on scientific research, Kepler’s mission is to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way to find evidence of extrasolar planets and estimate how many stars in our galaxy have planetary systems.

Relying on the Transit Method of detection (see below), Kepler’s sole instrument is a photometer that continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view. This data is transmitted back to Earth where it is analyzed by scientists to look for any signs of periodic dimming caused by extrasolar planets transiting (passing) in front of their host star.

Histogram showing the number of exoplanets discovered by year. Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, Princeton/T. Morton
Histogram showing the number of exoplanets discovered by year. Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, Princeton/T. Morton

The initial planned lifetime of the Kepler mission was 3.5 years, but greater-than-expected results led to the mission being extended. In 2012, the mission was expected to last until 2016, but this changed due to the failure of one the spacecraft’s reaction wheels – which are used for pointing the spacecraft. On May 11, 2013, a second of four reaction wheels failed, disabling the collection of science data and threatening the continuation of the mission.

On August 15, 2013, NASA announced that they had given up trying to fix the two failed reaction wheels and modified the mission accordingly. Rather than scrap Kepler, NASA proposed changing the mission to utilizing Kepler to detect habitable planets around smaller, dimmer red dwarf stars.  This proposal, which became known as K2 “Second Light”, was approved on May 16th, 2014.

Since that time, the K2 mission has focused more on brighter stars (such as G- and K-class stars). As of October 13th, 2016, astronomers have confirmed the presence of 3,397 exoplanets and 573 multi-planet systems, the vast majority of which were found using data from Kepler. All told, the space probe has observed over 150,000 stars in the course of its primary and K2 missions.

In November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way. It is estimated that 11 billion of these planets may be orbiting Sun-like stars.

This diagram shows the distances of the planets in the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), from their respective stars (left). The habitable zone is indicated as the blue area, showing that Gliese 581 d is located inside the habitable zone around its low-mass red star. Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO
Diagram showing the habitable zone of the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), based on the work of Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO

Habitable Planets:

The discovery of exoplanets has also intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life, particularly for those that orbit in the host star’s habitable zone. Also known as the “goldilocks zone“, this is the region of the solar system where conditions are warm enough (but not too warm) so that it is possible for liquid water (and therefore life) to exist on the planet’s surface.

The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, and was first observed on May 12th, 2009, and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.

Prior to the deployment of Kepler, the vast majority of confirmed exoplanets fell into the category of Jupiter-sized or larger. However, as of Sept. 18th, 2015, Kepler has identified 4,696 potential candidates, many of them falling into the categories of Earth-size or “Super-Earth” size. Many of these are located in the habitable zone of their parent stars, and some even around Sun-like stars.

And according to a recent study from NASA Ames Research Center, analysis of the Kepler mission data indicated that about 24% of M-class stars may harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets (i.e. those that are smaller than 1.6 times the radius of Earth’s). Based upon the number of M-class stars in the galaxy, that alone represents about 10 billion potentially habitable, Earth-like worlds.

Meanwhile, analyses of the K2 phase suggests that about one-quarter of the larger stars surveyed may also have Earth-size planet orbiting within their habitable zones. Taken together, the stars observed by Kepler make up about 70% of those found within the Milky Way. So one can estimate that there are literally tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone.

Detection Methods:

While some exoplanets have been observed directly with telescopes (a process known as “Direct Imaging”), the vast majority have been detected through indirect methods such as the transit method and the radial-velocity method. In the case of the Transit Method, a planet is observed when crossing the path (i.e. transiting) in front of its parent star’s disk.

When this occurs, the observed brightness of the star drops by a small amount, which can be measured and used to determine the size of the planet. The transit method reveals the radius of a planet, and it has the benefit that it sometimes allows a planet’s atmosphere to be investigated through spectroscopy.

However, it also suffers from a substantial rate of false positives, and generally requires that part of the planet’s orbit intersect a line-of-sight between the host star and Earth. As a result, confirmation from another method is usually considered necessary. Nevertheless, it remains the most widely-used means of detection and is responsible for more exoplanet discoveries than all other methods combined. The Kepler telescope uses this method (see above).

The Radial Velocity (or Doppler Method) involves measuring the star’s radial velocity – i.e. the speed with which it moves towards or away from Earth. The is one means of detecting planets because, as planet’s orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence that causes the star itself to move in its own small orbit around the system’s center of mass.

This method has the advantage of being applicable to stars with a wide range of characteristics. However, one of its disadvantages is that it cannot determine a planet’s true mass, but can only set a lower limit on that mass. It remains the second-most effective technique employed by exoplanet hunters.

Other methods include Transit Timing Variation (TTV) and Gravitational Microlensing. The former relies on measuring the variations in the times of transit for one planet to determine the existence of others. This method is effective in determining the existence of multiple transiting planets in one system, but requires that the existence of at least one already be confirmed.

In another form of the method, timing the eclipses in an eclipsing binary star can reveal an outer planet that orbits both stars. As of August 2013, a few planets have been found with this method while numerous more were confirmed.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection - radial velocity (blue), transit (green), timing (yellow), direct imaging (red), microlensing (orange). Image Credit: Public domain
Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection – radial velocity (blue), transit (green), timing (yellow), direct imaging (red), microlensing (orange). Image Credit: Public domain

In the case of Gravitational Microlensing, this refers to the effect a star’s gravitational field can have, acting like a lens to magnify the light of a distance background star. Planets orbiting this star can cause detectable anomalies in the magnification over time, thus indicating their presence. This technique is effective in detecting stars that have wider orbits (1-10 AUs) from Sun-like stars.

Other methods exist, and – alone or in combination – have allowed for the detection and confirmation of thousands of planets. As of May 2015, a total of 1921 planets in 1214 planetary systems have been confirmed, as well as 482 multiple planetary systems.

Future Missions:

With the winding down of Kepler’s mission, and so many discoveries made within a short period of time, NASA and other federal space agencies plan to continue in the hunt for extrasolar planets. Proposed NASA missions that will pick up where Kepler has left off include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – which is scheduled for launch sometime in 2017 – and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is to be deployed in October of 2018.

In addition, the European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to continue to map out a significant portion of the Milky Way Galaxy (including exoplanets) using its Gaia spacecraft – which commenced operations in 2013. The Herschel Space Observatory, and ESA mission with participation from NASA, has been in operation since 2009 and is also expected to make many interesting discoveries in the coming years.

There’s a an entire Universe of worlds out there to discover, and we’ve barely scratched the surface!

Universe Today has many interesting articles on exoplanets. Here’s What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?, Focusing On ‘Second-Earth’ Candidates In The Kepler Catalog, New Technique to Find Earth-like Exoplanets, Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!, Planetary Habitability Index Proposes A Less “Earth-Centric” View In Search Of Life, Habitable Earth-Like Exoplanets Might Be Closer Than We Think.

For more information, check out Kepler’s home page at NASA. The Planetary Society’s page on Exoplanets is also interesting, as is NASA Exoplanet Archive – which is maintained with the help of Caltech.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject –  Episode 2: In Search of Other Worlds.

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