Exoplanet-Hunters Detect Two New “Warm Jupiters”

The study of extra-solar planets has turned up some rather interesting candidates in the past few years. As of August 1st, 2017, a total of 3,639 exoplanets have been discovered in 2,729 planetary systems and 612 multiple planetary systems. Many of these discoveries have challenged conventional thinking about planets, especially where their sizes and distances from their suns are concerned.

According to a study by an international team of astronomers, the latest exoplanet discoveries are in keeping with this trend. Known as EPIC 211418729b and EPIC 211442297b, these two gas giants orbit stars that are located about 1569 and 1360 light-years from Earth (respectively) and are similar in size to Jupiter. Combined with their relatively close orbit to their stars, the team has designated them as “Warm Jupiters”.

The study, titled “EPIC 211418729b and EPIC 211442297b: Two Transiting Warm Jupiters“, recently appeared online. Led by Avi Shporer – a postdoctoral scholar with the Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) division at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) – the team relied on data from the Kepler and K2 missions, and follow-up observations with multiple ground-based telescopes, to determine the sizes, masses and orbits of these planets.

Simulation of the turbulent atmosphere of a hot, gaseous planet, based on data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT/Principia College

As they indicate in their study, the two planets were initially identified as transiting planet candidates by the K2 mission. In other words, they were initially detected through the transit method, where astronomers measure dips in a star brightness to confirm that a planet is passing between the observer and the star. These observations took place during K2‘s Campaign 5 observations, which took place between April 27th and July 10th, 2015.

The team then conducted follow-up observations using the Keck II telescope (located at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii) and the Gemini North Telescope (at the Gemini Observatory, also in Hawaii). These observations, conducted from January 2016 to May 2017, were then combined with spectral data and radial velocity measurements from the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) the on the Keck I telescope.

Finally, they added photometric data from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), and the Siding Spring Observatory (SSO) in Australia. These follow-up observations confirmed the presence of these two exoplanets. As they wrote in the study:

“We have discovered two transiting warm Jupiter exoplanets initially identified as transiting candidates in K2 photometryBoth planets are among the longest period transiting gas giant planets with a measured mass, and they are orbiting relatively old host stars. Both planets are not inflated as their radii are consistent with theoretical expectations.”

The transit light curve of EPIC 211418729b. Credit: Shporer (et al.)

From their observations, the team was also able to produce estimates on the planets respective sizes, masses and orbital periods. Whereas EPIC 211418729 b measures 0.942 Jupiter radii, has approximately 1.85 Jupiter masses and orbital period of 11.4 days, EPIC 211442297 b measures 1.115 Jupiter radii, has approximately 0.84 Jupiter masses and an orbital period of 20.3 days.

Based on their estimates, these planets experience surface temperatures of up to 719 K (445.85 °C; 834.5 °F) and 682 K (408.85°C; 768 °F), respectively. As such, they classified these planets as “Warm Jupiters”, since they fall short of what is considered typical for “Hot Jupiters” – which have exotic atmosphere’s that experience temperatures as high as several thousand kelvin.

The researchers noted that based on their orbital periods, these two planets have some of the longest orbital periods of any transiting gas giant (i.e. those that have been detected using the transit method) detected to date. Or as they state in their study:

“Both EPIC 211418729b and EPIC 211442297b are among the longest period transiting gas giant planets with a measured mass. In fact, according to the NASA Exoplanet Archive (Akeson et al. 2013) EPIC 211442297b is currently the longest period K2 transiting exoplanet with a well constrained mass.”

Artist’s conception of a “Hot Jupiter” orbiting close to its star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

Another interesting observation was the fact that neither of these exoplanets were inflated, which is something they did not anticipate. In the case of Hot Jupiters, the atmospheres undergo expansion as a result of the amount of solar irradiation they receive, resulting in what the team refers to as a “radius-irradiation correlation” in their paper. In other words, Hot Jupiters are massive, but are also known to have low densities compared to cooler gas giants.

Instead, the team found that both EPIC 211418729b and EPIC 211442297b had radii that were consistent with what theoretical models predict for gas giants of their mass. Their results also led them to make some tentative conclusions about the planets’ structures and compositions. As they wrote:

“Both planets are not inflated compared to theoretical expectations, unlike many other planets in the diagram. Their positions are close to or consistent with theoretical expectations for a planet with little to no rocky core, for EPIC 211442297b, and a planet with a significant rocky core for EPIC 211418729b.”

These results suggest that solar irradiation does not play a significant role in determining the radius of Warm Jupiters. It also raises some interesting questions about the correlation between radii and irradiation with other gas giants. In the future, EPIC 211418729b and EPIC 211442297b will be targets of future K2 observations during the mission’s Campaign 18 – which will run from May to August 2018.

These observations are sure to offer some additional insight into these planets and the mysteries this study has raised. Future surveys of transiting exoplanets – conducting by next-generation instruments like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellites (TESS) – and direct-imaging surveys conducted by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are sure to reveal even more about distant, exotic exoplanets.

Further Reading: arXiv

Is the “Alien Megastructure” around Tabby’s Star Actually a Ringed Gas Giant?

KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star) continues to be a source of both fascination and controversy. Ever since it was first seen to be undergoing strange and sudden dips in brightness (in October of 2015) astronomers have been speculating as to what could be causing this. Since that time, various explanations have been offered, including large asteroids, a large planet, a debris disc or even an alien megastructure.

The latest suggestion for a natural explanation comes from the University of Antioquia in Colombia, where a team of researchers have proposed that both the larger and smaller drops in brightness could be the result of a ringed planet similar to Saturn transiting in front of the star. This, they claim, would explain both the sudden drops in brightness and the more subtle dips seen over time.

The study, titled “Anomalous Lightcurves of Young Tilted Exorings“, recently appeared online. Led by Mario Sucerquia, a postdoctoral student at the University of Antioquia’s Department of Astronomy, the team performed numerical simulations and semi-analytical calculations to determine if a the transits of a ringed gas giant could explain the recent observations made of Tabby’s Star.

An artist impression of an exomoon orbiting a ringed exoplanet. Credit: Andy McLatchie

Currently, exoplanet-hunters use a number of methods to detect planetary candidates. One of the most popular is known as the Transit Method, where astronomers measure dips in a star’s brightness caused by a planet passing between it and the observer (i.e. transiting in front of a star). How a gas giant with rings would dim a star’s light was of concern here because it would do so in an irregular way.

Basically, the rings would be the first thing to obscure light coming from the star, but only to a small degree. Once the bulk of the gas giant transited the star, a significant drop would occur followed a second smaller drop as the rings on the other side passed by. But since the rings would be at a different angle every time, the smaller dips would be larger or smaller and the only way to know for sure would be to compare multiple transits.

In the past, researchers from the University of Antioquia developed a novel method for detecting rings around exoplanets (“exorings”). Essentially, they showed how an increase in the depth of a transit signal and the so-called “photo-ring” effect (often mistaken for false-positives in previous surveys) could be interpreted as signs of an exoplanet with a Saturn-like ring structure.

The team that devised this method was led by Jorge I. Zuluaga of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), who was also a co-author on this study.  To test this theory with KIC 8462852, the team simulated a light curve from a ringed planet that was about 0.1 AU from the star. What they found was that a tilted ring structure could explain the dimming effects detected from Tabby’s Star in the past.

Artist’s impression of an exoplanet with an extensive ring system. Credit and Copyright: Ron Miller

They also found that a tilted ring structure would undergo short-term changes in shape and orientation as a result of the star’s gravitational tug on them. These would be apparent due to strong variations of transit depth and contact times even between consecutive transits. This too would likely be interpreted as anomalies in signal data, or lead to miscalculations of a planet’s properties (i.e. radius, semi-major axis, stellar density, etc).

This is not the first time that a ringed-structure has been suggested as an explanation for the mystery that is Tabby’s Star. And the team admits that there are other possible explanations, which include the possibility of an exomoon breaking up around a larger planet (i.e. leaving a debris disk). But as Sucerquia indicated in an interview with New Scientist, this latest study does offer some compelling food for thought:

“The point of this work is to show the community that there are mechanisms that can alter the light curves. These changes can be generated by the dynamics of the moons or the rings, and the changes in these systems can occur in such short scales as to be detected in just a few years.”

Another interesting takeaway from the research study is the fact that oscillating ring structures could also account for the strangeness of some light-curves that are already known. In other words, its possible that astronomers have already found evidence of ringed exoplanets, and simply didn’t know it. Looking ahead, it is possible that future surveys could turn up plenty more of these worlds as well.

Of course, if this study should prove to be correct, it means that what some consider our best hope of finding an alien megastructure has now been lost. Admittedly, this would be a disappointment. If there’s one thing about the mystery of Tabby’s Star that has been consistently intriguing, it’s the fact that a megastructure couldn’t be ruled out. If we have come to that point at last, there’s not much more to say.

Except, perhaps, that’s it’s a big Universe! There’s sure to be a Kardashev Type II civilization out there somewhere!

Further Reading: New Scientists, arXiv

Only 10 Light-Years Away, there’s a Baby Version of the Solar System

Astronomers are understandanly fascinated with the Epsilon Eridani system. For one, this star system is in close proximity to our own, at a distance of about 10.5 light years from the Solar System. Second, it has been known for some time that it contains two asteroid belts and a large debris disk. And third, astronomers have suspected for many years that this star may also have a system of planets.

On top of all that, a new study by a team of astronomers has indicated that Epsilon Eridani may be what our own Solar System was like during its younger days. Relying on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft, the team conducted a detailed analysis of the system that showed how it has an architecture remarkably similar to what astronomer believe the Solar System once looked like.

Led by Kate Su – an Associate Astronomer with the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona – the team includes researchers and astronomers from the Department of Physics & Astronomy of Iowa State University, the Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory at the University of Jena (Germany), and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center.

Artist’s diagram showing the similar structure of the Epsilon Eridani to the Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study – the results of which were published in The Astronomical Journal under the title “The Inner 25 AU Debris Distribution in the Epsilon Eri System” – the team relied on data obtained by a flight of SOFIA in January 2015. Combined with detailed computer modeling and research that went on for years, they were able to make new determinations about the structure of the debris disk.

As already noted, previous studies of Epsilon Eridani indicated that the system is surrounded by rings made up of materials that are basically leftovers from the process of planetary formation. Such rings consist of gas and dust, and are believed to contain many small rocky and icy bodies as well – like the Solar System’s own Kuiper Belt, which orbits our Sun beyond Neptune.

Careful measurements of the disk’s motion has also indicated that a planet with nearly the same mass as Jupiter circles the star at a distance comparable to Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. However, based on prior data obtained by the NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists were unable to determine the position of warm material within the disk – i.e. the dust and gas – which gave rise to two models.

In one, warm material is concentrated into two narrow rings of debris that orbit the star at distances corresponding respectively to the Main Asteroid Belt and Uranus in our Solar System. According to this model, the largest planet in the system would likely be associated with an adjacent debris belt. In the other, warm material is in a broad disk, is not concentrated into asteroid belt-like rings, and is not associated with any planets in the inner region.

NASA’s SOFIA aircraft before a 2015 flight to observe a nearby star. Credit: Massimo Marengo.

Using the new SOFIA images, Su and her team were able to determine that the warm material around Epsilon Eridani is arranged like the first model suggests. In essence, it is in at least one narrow belt, rather than in a broad continuous disk. As Su explained in a NASA press release:

“The high spatial resolution of SOFIA combined with the unique wavelength coverage and impressive dynamic range of the FORCAST camera allowed us to resolve the warm emission around eps Eri, confirming the model that located the warm material near the Jovian planet’s orbit. Furthermore, a planetary mass object is needed to stop the sheet of dust from the outer zone, similar to Neptune’s role in our solar system. It really is impressive how eps Eri, a much younger version of our solar system, is put together like ours.”

These observations were made possible thanks to SOFIA’s on-board telescopes, which have a greater diameter than Spitzer – 2.5 meters (100 inches) compared to Spitzer’s 0.85 m (33.5 inches). This allowed for far greater resolution, which the team used to discern details within the Epsilon Eridani system that were three times smaller than what had been observed using the Spitzer data.

In addition, the team made use of SOFIA’s powerful mid-infrared camera – the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). This instrument allowed the team to study the strongest infrared emissions coming from the warm material around the star which are otherwise undetectable by ground-based observatories – at wavelengths between 25-40 microns.

This artist’s conception of the Epsilon Eridani system, the closest star system who’s structure resembles a young Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

These observations further indicate that the Epsilon Eridani system is much like our own, albeit in younger form. In addition to having asteroid belts and a debris disk that is similar to our Main Belt and Kuiper Belt, it appears that it likely has more planets waiting to be found within the spaces between. As such, the study of this system could help astronomers to learn things about the history of our own Solar System.

Massimo Marengo, one of he co-authors of the study, is an Associate Professor with the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Iowa State University. As he explained in a University of Iowa press release:

“This star hosts a planetary system currently undergoing the same cataclysmic processes that happened to the solar system in its youth, at the time in which the moon gained most of its craters, Earth acquired the water in its oceans, and the conditions favorable for life on our planet were set.”

At the moment, more studies will need to be conducted on this neighboring stars system in order to learn more about its structure and confirm the existence of more planets. And it is expected that the deployment of next-generation instruments – like the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in October of 2018 – will be extremely helpful in that regard.

“The prize at the end of this road is to understand the true structure of Epsilon Eridani’s out-of-this-world disk, and its interactions with the cohort of planets likely inhabiting its system,” Marengo wrote in a newsletter about the project. “SOFIA, by its unique ability of capturing infrared light in the dry stratospheric sky, is the closest we have to a time machine, revealing a glimpse of Earth’s ancient past by observing the present of a nearby young sun.”

Further Reading: NASA, IAState, The Astronomical Journal