The search for exoplanets has revealed types of planets that are nothing like the worlds in our own Solar System. One such type is the hot-Jupiter. They’re gas giants like Jupiter that orbit their host star very closely. That proximity raises their temperatures to extreme heights.
Hot-Jupiters can be hot enough to vaporize metals, making their atmospheres un-Earthlike. A team of astronomers examining one exoplanet has found 7 different gaseous metals in its atmosphere.
In August of 2016, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) extra-solar planet orbiting within the habitable zone of the nearby Proxima Centauri star system, just 4.25 light-years away. Naturally, news of this was met with a great deal of excitement. This was followed about six months later with the announcement of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1.
Well buckle up, because the ESO just announced that there is another potentially-habitable planet in our stellar neighborhood! Like Proxima b, this exoplanet – known as Ross 128b – is relatively close to our Solar System (10.8 light years away) and is believed to be temperate in nature. But on top of that, this rocky planet has the added benefit of orbiting a quiet red dwarf star, which boosts the likelihood of it being habitable.
The discovery was made using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. This observatory relies on measurements of a star’s Doppler shift in order to determine if it moving back and forth, a sign that it has a system of planets. Using the HARPS data, the team determined that a rocky planet orbits Ross 128 (an M-type red dwarf star) at a distance of about 0.05 AU with a period of 9.9 days.
Despite its proximity to its host star, Ross 128b receives only 1.38 times more irradiation than the Earth. This is due to the cool and faint nature of red dwarf stars like Ross 128, which has a surface temperature roughly half that of our Sun. From this, the discovery team estimated that Ross 128b’s equilibrium temperature is likely somewhere between -60 and 20°C – i.e. close to what we experience here on Earth.
As Nicola Astudillo-Defru of the Geneva Observatory – and a co-author on the discovery paper – indicated in an ESO press release:
“This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques. Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations.”
But what is most encouraging is the fact that Ross 128 is the “quietest” nearby star that is also home to an exoplanet. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type red dwarfs are particularly low in mass, dimmer and cooler. They are also the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies.
Unfortunately, they are also variable and unstable compared to other classes of star, which means they experience regular flare ups. This means that any planets which orbit them will be periodically subjected to deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. In comparison, Ross 128 is much quieter, meaning it experiences less in the way of flare activity, and planets orbiting it are therefore exposed to less radiation over time.
This means that, relative to Proxima b or those planets located within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone – Ross 128b is more likely to retain an atmosphere and support life. For those who are engaged in searches for exoplanets around M-type stars – or are of the opinion that red dwarfs are the best bet for finding habitable worlds – this latest discovery would seem to confirm that they are looking in the right spots!
As noted, red dwarfs are the most common in the Universe, and in recent years, many rocky planets (sometimes even a multi-planet system) have been found orbiting these stars. Combined with their natural longevity – which can remain in their main sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years – red dwarf stars have understandably become a popular target for exoplanet-hunters.
In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils named their HARPS program “The Shortcut to Happiness” for this very reason. As he and his colleagues indicated, it is easier to detect small cool planets of Earth around smaller, dimmer M-type stars than it is around stars that are more similar to the Sun.
However, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical about the likelihood that any of these planets could be habitable (again, due to their variable nature). But this most recent discovery, along with recent research that indicates how tidally-locked planets that orbit red dwarf stars could hold onto their atmospheres, is another possible indication that these fears may be for naught.
Being at a distance of about 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128b is currently the second-closest exoplanet to our Sun. However, Ross 128 itself is slowly moving closer towards us and will become our nearest stellar neighbor in roughly 79,000 years. At this point, Ross 128b will replace Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!
But of course, much remains to be found about this latest exoplanet. While the discovery team consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet based on its orbit, it remains uncertain as to whether it lies within, beyond, or on the cusp of the star’s habitable zone. However, further studies are expected to shed more light on this and other questions relating this potentially-habitable world.
Astronomers also anticipate that more temperature exoplanets will be discovered in the coming years, and that future surveys will be able to determine a great deal more about their atmospheres, composition and chemistry. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) are expected to play a major role.
Not only will these and other instrument help turn up more exoplanet candidates, they will also be used in the hunt for biosignatures in planet’s atmospheres (i.e. oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, etc.). As Bonfils concluded:
“New facilities at ESO will first play a critical role in building the census of Earth-mass planets amenable to characterization. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. And then, the ELT will provide the opportunity to observe and characterize a large fraction of these planets.”
At this juncture, the process of exoplanet discovery is moving beyond detection and getting into the process of characterization and detailed study. Even so, it is nice that we are still making groundbreaking discoveries in the field of detection. In the coming years, we may transition from looking for an Earth 2.0 to a point where weare actively studying several at once!
M-type stars, also known as “red dwarfs”, have become a popular target for exoplanet hunters of late. This is understandable given the sheer number of terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets that have been discovered orbiting around red dwarf stars in recent years. These discoveries include the closest exoplanet to our Solar System (Proxima b) and the seven planets discovered around TRAPPIST-1, three of which orbit within the star’s habitable zone.
The latest find comes from a team of international astronomers who discovered a planet around GJ 625, a red dwarf star located just 21 light years away from Earth. This terrestrial planet is roughly 2.82 times the mass of Earth (aka. a “super-Earth”) and orbits within the star’s habitable zone. Once again, news of this discovery is prompting questions about whether or not this world could indeed be habitable (and also inhabited).
The study which details their findings was recently accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, and appears online under the title “A super-Earth on the Inner Edge of the Habitable Zone of the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 625“. According to the study, the team used radial-velocity measurements of GJ 625 in order to determine the presence of a planet that has between two and three times the mass of Earth.
Using this instrument, the team collected high-resolution spectroscopic data of the GJ 625 system over the course of three years. Specifically, they measured small variations in the stars radial velocity, which are attributed to the gravitational pull of a planet. From a total of 151 spectra obtained, they were able to determine that the planet (GJ 625 b) was likely terrestrial and had a minimum mass of 2.82 ± 0.51 Earth masses.
Moreover, they obtained distance estimates that placed it roughly 0.078 AU from its star, and an orbital period estimate of 14.628 ± 0.013 days. At this distance, the planet’s orbit places it just within GJ 625’s habitable zone. Of course, this does not mean conclusively that the planet has conditions conducive to life on its surface, but it is an encouraging indication.
“As GJ 625 is a relatively cool star the planet is situated at the edge of its habitability zone, in which liquid water can exist on its surface. In fact, depending on the cloud cover of its atmosphere and on its rotation, it could potentially be habitable”.
This is not the first time that the HADES project detected an exoplanet around a red dwarf star. In fact, back in 2016, a team of international researchers used this project to discover 2 super-Earths orbiting GJ 3998, a red dwarf located about 58 ± 2.28 light years from Earth. Beyond HADES, this discovery is yet another in a long line of rocky exoplanets that have been discovered in the habitable zone of a nearby red dwarf star.
Such findings are very encouraging since red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the known Universe- accounting for an estimated 70% of stars in our galaxy alone. Combined with the fact that they can exist for up to 10 trillion years, red dwarf systems are considered a prime candidate in the search for habitable exoplanets.
But as with all other planets discovered around red dwarf stars, there are unresolved questions about how the star’s variability and stability could affect the planet. For starters, red dwarf stars are known to vary in brightness and periodically release gigantic flares. In addition, any planet close enough to be within the star’s habitable zone would likely be tidally-locked with it, meaning that one side would be exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.
As such, additional observations will need to be made of this exoplanet candidate using the time-tested transit method. According to Jonay Hernández – a professor from the University of La Laguna, a researcher with the IAC and one of the co-authors on the study – future studies using this method will not only be able to confirm the planet’s existence and characterize it, but also determine if there are any other planets in the system.
“In the future, new observing campaigns of photometric observations will be essential to try to detect the transit of this planet across its star, given its proximity to the Sun,” he said. “There is a possibility that there are more rocky planets around GJ 625 in orbits which are nearer to, or further away from the star, and within the habitability zone, which we will keep on combing”.
According to Rafael Rebolo – one of the study’s co-authors from the Univeristy of La Laguna, a research with the IAC, and a member of the CSIS – future surveys using the transit method will also allow astronomers to determine with a fair degree of certainty whether or not GJ 625 b has the all-important ingredient for habitability – i.e. an atmosphere:
“The detection of a transit will allow us to determine its radius and its density, and will allow us to characterize its atmosphere by the transmitted light observe using high resolution high stability spectrographs on the GTC or on telescopes of the next generation in the northern hemisphere, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)”.
But what is perhaps most exciting about this latest find is how it adds to the population of extra-solar planets within our cosmic neighborhood. Given their proximity, each of these planets represent a major opportunity for research. And as Dr. Mascareño told Universe Today via email:
“While we have already found more than 3600 extra-solar planets, the exoplanet population in our near neighborhood is still somewhat unknown. At 21 ly from the Sun, GJ 625 is one of the 100 nearest stars, and right now GJ 625 b is one of the 30 nearest exoplanets detected and the 6th nearest potentially habitable exoplanet.”
Once again, ongoing surveys of nearby star systems is providing plenty of potential targets in the search for life beyond our Solar System. And with both ground-based and space-based next-generation telescopes joining the search, we can expect to find many, many more candidates in the coming years. In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of GJ 625 b and its parent star:
In so doing, they were able to determine that the electromagnetic energy coming from this distant galaxy was the same as what we observe here in the Milky Way. This showed that a fundamental force of the Universe (electromagnetism) is constant over time. And on Monday, Dec. 4th, the ESO followed-up on this historic find by releasing the color spectrum readings of this distant galaxy – known as HE 0940-1050.
To recap, most large galaxies in the Universe have SMBHs at their center. These huge black holes are known for consuming the matter that orbits all around them, expelling tremendous amounts of radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray energy in the process. Because of this, they are some of the brightest objects in the known Universe, and are visible even from billions of light years away.
But because of their distance, the energy which they emit has to pass through the intergalactic medium, where it comes into contact with incredible amount of matter. While most of this consists of hydrogen and helium, there are trace amounts of other elements as well. These absorb much of the light that travels between distant galaxies and us, and the absorption lines this creates can tell us of lot about the kinds of elements that are out there.
What they found was that the energy coming from HE 0940-1050 was very similar to that observed in the Milky Way galaxy. Basically, they obtained proof that electromagnetic energy is consistent over time, something which was previously a mystery to scientists. As they state in their study, which was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society:
“The Standard Model of particle physics is incomplete because it cannot explain the values of fundamental constants, or predict their dependence on parameters such as time and space. Therefore, without a theory that is able to properly explain these numbers, their constancy can only be probed by measuring them in different places, times and conditions. Furthermore, many theories which attempt to unify gravity with the other three forces of nature invoke fundamental constants that are varying.“
Since it is 8 billion light years away, and its strong intervening metal-absorption-line system, probing the electromagnetic spectrum being put out by HE 0940-1050 central quasar – not to mention the ability to correct for all the light that was absorbed by the intervening intergalactic medium – provided a unique opportunity to precisely measure how this fundamental force can vary over a very long period of time.
On top of that, the spectral information they obtained happened to be of the highest quality ever observed from a quasar. As they further indicated in their study:
“The largest systematic error in all (but one) previous similar measurements, including the large samples, was long-range distortions in the wavelength calibration. These would add a ?2 ppm systematic error to our measurement and up to ?10 ppm to other measurements using Mg and Fe transitions.”
However, the team corrected for this by comparing the UVES spectra to well-calibrated spectra obtained from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) – which is also located at the at the La Silla Observatory. By combining these readings, they were left with a residual systematic uncertainty of just 0.59 ppm, the lowest margin of error from any spectrographic survey to date.
This is exciting news, and for more reasons that one. On the one hand, precise measurements of distant galaxies allow us to test some of the most tricky aspects of our current cosmological models. On the other, determining that electromagnetism behaves in a consistent way over time is a major find, largely because it is responsible for such much of what goes on in our daily lives.
But perhaps most importantly of all, understanding how a fundamental force like electromagnetism behaves across time and space is intrinsic to finding out how it – as well as weak and strong nuclear force – unifies with gravity. This too has been a preoccupation of scientists, who are still at a loss when it comes to explaining how the laws governing particles interactions (i.e. quantum theory) unify with explanations of how gravity works (i.e general relativity).
By finding measurements of how these forces operate that are not varying could help in creating a working Grand Unifying Theory (GUT). One step closer to truly understanding how the Universe works!
For years, exoplanet hunters have been busy searching for planets that are similar to Earth. And when earlier this month, an unnamed source indicated that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had done just that – i.e. spotted a terrestrial planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone – the response was predictably intense.
The unnamed source also indicated that the ESO would be confirming this news by the end of August. At the time, the ESO offered no comment. But on the morning of Monday, August 22nd, the ESO broke its silence and announced that it will be holding a press conference this Wednesday, August 24th.
No mention was made as to the subject of the press conference or who would be in attendance. However, it is safe to assume at this point that it’s main purpose will be to address the burning question that’s on everyone’s mind: is there an Earth-analog planet orbiting the nearest star to our own?
For years, the ESO has been studying Proxima Centauri using the La Silla Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS). It was this same observatory that reported the discovery of a planet around Alpha Centauri B back in 2012 – which was the “closest planet to Earth” at the time – which has since been cast into doubt.
Relying on a technique known as the Radial Velocity (or Doppler) Method, they have been monitoring this star for signs of movement. Essentially, as planets orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence of their own which causes the star to move in a small orbit around the system’s center of mass.
Ordinarily, a star would require multiple exoplanets, or a planet of significant size (i.e. a Super-Jupiter) in order for the signs to be visible. In the case of terrestrial planets, which are much smaller than gas giants, the effect on a star’s orbit would be rather negligible. But given that Proxima Centauri is the closest star system to Earth – at a distance of 4.25 light years – the odds of discerning its radial velocity are significantly better.
According to the source cited by the German weekly Der Speigel, which was the first to report the story, the unconfirmed exoplanet is not only believed to be “Earth-like” (in the sense that it is a rocky body) but also orbits within it’s stars habitable zone (i.e. “Goldilocks Zone”).
Because of this, it would be possible for this planet to have liquid water on its surface, and an atmosphere capable of supporting life. However, we won’t know any of this for certain until we can direct the next-generation of telescopes – like the James Webb Space Telescope or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – to study it more thoroughly.
This is certainly an exciting development, as confirmation will mean that there is planet similar to Earth that is within our reach. Given time and the development of more advanced propulsion systems, we might even be able to mount a mission there to study it up close!
The press conference will start at 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET) – 1 p.m. EDT/10 a.m. PDT. And you bet that we will be reporting on the results shortly thereafter! Stay tuned!
Almost all the planet hunting has been done from space. But there’s a new instrument installed on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 meter telescope called the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher which has already turned up 130 planets. Is this the future? Searching for planets from the ground? Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 366: HARPS Spectrograph”
So far, just a handful of planets have been found orbiting stars in star clusters – and actually, astronomers weren’t too surprised about that. Star clusters can be pretty harsh places with hordes of stars huddling close together, with strong radiation and harsh stellar winds stripping planet-forming materials from the region.
But it turns out that perhaps astronomers are beginning to think differently about star clusters as being a homey place for exoplanets.
Scientists using several different telescopes, including the HARPS planet hunter in Chile have now discovered three planets orbiting stars in the cluster Messier 67.
“These new results show that planets in open star clusters are about as common as they are around isolated stars — but they are not easy to detect,” said Luca Pasquini from ESO, who is a co-author of a new paper about these planets. “The new results are in contrast to earlier work that failed to find cluster planets, but agrees with some other more recent observations. We are continuing to observe this cluster to find how stars with and without planets differ in mass and chemical makeup.”
The astronomers are pretty excited about one of these planets in particular, as it orbits a star that is a rare solar twin — a star that is almost identical to our Sun in all respects. This is the first “solar twin” in a cluster that has been found to have a planet.
“In the Messier 67 star cluster the stars are all about the same age and composition as the Sun,” said Anna Brucalassi from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and lead author of the new paper on these planets. “This makes it a perfect laboratory to study how many planets form in such a crowded environment, and whether they form mostly around more massive or less massive stars.”
This cluster lies about 2,500 light-years away in the constellation of Cancer and contains about 500 stars. Many of the cluster stars are fainter than those normally targeted for exoplanet searches and trying to detect the weak signal from possible planets pushed HARPS to the limit, the team said.
They carefully monitored 88 selected stars in Messier 67 over a period of six years to look for the tiny telltale “wobbling” motions of the stars that reveal the presence of orbiting planets.
Three planets were discovered, two orbiting stars similar to the Sun and one orbiting a more massive and evolved red giant star. Two of the three planets are “hot Jupiters” — planets comparable to Jupiter in size, but much closer to their parent stars and therefore not in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist.
The first two planets both have about one third the mass of Jupiter and orbit their host stars in seven and five days respectively. The third planet takes 122 days to orbit its host and is more massive than Jupiter.
Star clusters come in two main types: open and globular. Open clusters are groups of stars that have formed together from a single cloud of gas and dust in the recent past, and are mainly found in the spiral arms of a galaxy like the Milky Way. Globular clusters are much bigger spherical collections of much older stars that orbit around the center of a galaxy. Despite careful searches, no planets have been found in a globular cluster and less than six in open clusters.
Another study last year from a team using the Kepler telescope found two planets in a dense open star cluster and the team stated that how planets can form in the hostile environments of dense star clusters is “not well understood, either observationally or theoretically.”
Exoplanets have been found in some amazing environments, and astronomers will continue to hunt for planets in these clusters of stars to try and learn more about how and why — and how many — exoplanets exist in star clusters.
Able to achieve an astounding precision of 0.97 m/s (3.5 km/h), with an effective precision of the order of 30 cms-1, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) echelle spectrograph has already discovered 16 planetary objects in the southern hemisphere and has now logged four more. And that’s only the beginning…
“A long-period companion, probably a second planet, is also found orbiting HD7449. Planets around HD137388, HD204941, and HD7199 have rather low eccentricities (less than 0.4) relative to the 0.82 eccentricity of HD7449b. All these planets were discovered even though their hosting stars have clear signs of activity.” says X. Dumusque (et al). “Solar-like magnetic cycles, characterized by long-term activity variations, can be seen for HD137388, HD204941 and HD7199, whereas the measurements of HD7449 reveal a short-term activity variation, most probably induced by magnetic features on the stellar surface.”
Using radial velocity is currently the preferred method for detecting new planets. But, despite the quality of the equipment, low mass planets placed at a great distance from the host star become problematic because of the star’s own “noise”. RV is an indirect method which utilizes the presence of star wobble to spot orbiting bodies. Unfortunately, normal star activity such as magnetic cycles, spots and plagues can produce similar signals, but now long term variables like these are being fine tuned into the equation.
“The planets announced in this paper for the first time have been discovered even though their host stars display clear signs of activity. We have found that HD7449 exhibits signs of short term activity, whereas HD7199, HD137388, and HD204941 have solar-like magnetic cycles.” says Dumusque. “When examining the RVs and the fitted planets for HD7199, HD137388, and HD204941, it is clear that magnetic cycles induce RV variations that could be misinterpreted as long-period planetary signature. Therefore, the long-term variations in the activity index have to be studied properly to distinguish between the real signature of a planet and long-term activity noise.”
The paper then goes on to explain our Sun should show RV variations of 10ms?1 over its cycle and that it is typical behavior for solar-like stars. Perhaps all stars which display magnetic cycles also have long-term RV variations? “The high precision HARPS sample, composed of 451 stars, provides a good set of measurements to search for this activity-RV correlation.” says Lovis (et al). “A more complete study is in progress and will be soon published.”