A New Way to Measure the Age of the Milky Way

Artist’s impression of the warped and twisted Milky Way disk. Credit: Chen Xiaodian/Kavli Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics

Like many other spiral galaxies in the Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy consists of two disk-like structures – the thin disk and the thick disk. The thick disk, which envelopes the thin disk, contains about 20% of the Milky Way’s stars and is thought to be the older of the pair based on the composition of its stars (which have greater metallicity) and its puffier nature.

However, in a recent study, a team of 38 scientists led by researchers from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in Three Dimensions (ASTRO-3D) used data from the now-retired Kepler mission to measure starquakes in the Milky Way’s disk. From this, they have revised the official estimates on the age of the Milky Way’s thick disk, which they conclude is around 10 billion years old.

Continue reading “A New Way to Measure the Age of the Milky Way”

A New Extrasolar Planet Has The Composition of Mercury, but 2.5 Times the Mass of Earth

Using data obtained by Kepler and numerous observatories around the world, an international team has found a Super-Earth that orbits its orange dwarf star in just 14 hours. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

In the course of searching for planets beyond our Solar System – aka. extra-solar planets – some truly interesting cases have been discovered. In addition to planets that are several times the size of the Solar System’s largest planet (Super-Jupiters), astronomers have also found a plethora of terrestrial (i.e rocky) planets that are several times the size of Earth (Super-Earths).

This is certainly true of K2-229b, a rocky planet that was recently discovered by an international team of astronomers. Located 339 light years away, this hot, metallic planet is an exercise in extremes. Not only is it 20% larger than Earth, it is 2.6 times Earth mass and has a composition similar to Mercury. On top of that, its orbits its star so closely that it is several times hotter than Mercury.

The study which details their discovery recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “An Earth-sized exoplanet with a Mercury-like composition“. The study was led by Alexandre Santerne, a researcher from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM) at the Aix-Marseille Université, and included members from the the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the University of Warwick, the Universidade do Porto, and multiple universities and research institutions.

The newly-discovered exoplanet K2-229b is 20% larger than Earth, but has a composition like Mercury. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/USGS/Arizona State University

Using data from the Kepler space telescopes K2 mission, the team was able to identify K2-229b, a Super-Earth that orbits a medium-sized K dwarf (orange dwarf) star in the Virgo Constellation. Using the Radial Velocity Method – aka. Doppler Spectroscopy –  the team was able to determine the planet’s size and mass, which indicated that it is similar in composition to Mercury – i.e. metallic and rocky.

They were also able to determine that it orbits its star at a distance of 0.012 AU with an orbital period of just 14 days. At this distance, K2-229b is roughly one one-hundredth as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun and experiences surface temperature that are several times higher than those on Mercury – reaching a day side temperature 2000 °C (3632 °F), or hot enough to melt iron and silicon.

As Dr. David Armstrong, a researcher from the University of Warwick and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Mercury stands out from the other Solar System terrestrial planets, showing a very high fraction of iron and implying it formed in a different way. We were surprised to see an exoplanet with the same high density, showing that Mercury-like planets are perhaps not as rare as we thought. Interestingly K2-229b is also the innermost planet in a system of at least 3 planets, though all three orbit much closer to their star than Mercury. More discoveries like this will help us shed light on the formation of these unusual planets, as well as Mercury itself.”

Artist’s concept of a collision between two large astronomical objects, which may have been how K2-229b formed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Given its dense, metallic nature, it is something of a mystery of how this planet formed. One theory is that the planet’s atmosphere could have been eroded by intense stellar wind and flares, given that the planet is so close to its star. Another possibility is that it was formed from a huge impact between two giant bodies billions of years ago – similar to the theory of how the Moon formed after Earth collided with a Mars-sized body (named Theia).

As with many recent discoveries, this latest exoplanet is giving astronomers the opportunity to see just what is possible. By studying how them, we are able to learn more about how the Solar System formed and evolved. Given the similarities between K2-229b and Mercury, the study of this exoplanet could teach us much about how Mercury became a dense, metallic planet that orbits closely to our Sun.

Further Reading: Warwick

A New Planetary System Has Been Found with Three Super Earths

Artist’s impression of a view from the HD 7924 planetary system looking back toward our sun, which would be easily visible to the naked eye. Since HD 7924 is in our northern sky, an observer looking back at the sun would see objects like the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds close to our sun in their sky. Credit: Karen Termaura and BJ Fulton, UH IfA

As of March 1st, 2018, 3,741 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,794 systems, with 622 systems having more than one planet. Most of the credit for these discoveries goes to the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered roughly 3500 planets and 4500 planetary candidates. In the wake of all these discoveries, the focus has shifted from pure discovery to research and characterization.

In this respect, planets detected using the Transit Method are especially valuable since they allow for the study of these planets in detail. For example, a team of astronomers recently discovered three Super-Earths orbiting a star known GJ 9827, which is located just 100 light years (30 parsecs) from Earth. The proximity of the star, and the fact that it is orbited by multiple Super-Earths, makes this system ideal for detailed exoplanet studies.

The study, titled “A System of Three Super Earths Transiting the Late K-Dwarf GJ 9827 at Thirty Parsecs“, recently appeared online. The study was led by Joseph E. Rodriguez of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and included members from The University of Texas at Austin, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.

Artistic design of the super-Earth GJ 625 b and its star, GJ625 (Gliese 625). Credit: Gabriel Pérez/SMM (IAC)

As with all Kepler discoveries, these planets were discovered using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), where stars are monitored for periodic dips of brightness. These dips are the result of exoplanets passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer. While this method is ideal for placing constraints on the size and orbital periods of a planet, it can also allow for exoplanet characterization.

Basically, scientists are able to learn things about their atmospheres by measuring the spectra produced by the star’s light as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere. Combined with radial velocity measurements of the star, scientists can also place constraints on the planet’s mass and radius and can determine things about the planet’s interior structure.

For the sake of their study, the team analyzed data obtained by the K2 mission, which showed the presence of three Super-Earths around the star GJ 9827 (GJ 9827 b, c, and d). Since they initially submitted their research paper back in September of 2017, the presence of these planets has been confirmed by another team of astronomers. As Dr. Rodriguez told Universe Today via email:

“We detected three super-Earth sized planets orbiting in a very compact configuration. Specifically, the three planets have radii of 1.6, 1.2, and 2.1 times the radius of Earth and all orbit their host star within 6.2 days. We note that this system was independently discovered (simultaneously) by another team from Wesleyan University (Niraula et al. 2017).”

The super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e, depicted with its star in this artist’s concept, likely has an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s but with ingredients that could be similar to those of Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL

These three exoplanets are especially interesting because the larger of the two have radii that place them in the range between being rocky or gaseous. Few such exoplanets have been discovered so far, which makes these three a prime target for research. As Dr. Rodriguez explained:

Super Earth sized planets are the most common type of planet we know of but we do not have one in our own solar system, limiting our ability to understand them. They are especially important because their radii span the rock to gas transition (as I discuss below in one of the other responses). Essentially, planets larger then 1.6 times the radius of the Earth are less dense and have thick hydrogen/helium atmospheres while planets smaller are very dense with little to no atmosphere.”

Another interesting thing about these super-Earths is how their short orbital periods – which are 1.2, 3.6 and 6.2 days, respectively – would result in fairly hot temperatures. In short, the team estimates that the three super-Earths experience surface temperatures of 1172 K (899 °C; 1650 °F), 811 K (538 °C; 1000 °F), and 680 K (407 °C; 764 °F), respectively.

By comparison, Venus – the hottest planet in the Solar System – experiences surface temperatures of 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F). So while temperatures on Venus are hot enough to melt lead, conditions on GJ 9827 b are almost hot enough to melt bronze.

The light curve obtained during Campaign 12 of the K2 mission of the GJ 9827 system. Credit: Rodriguez et al., 2018.

However, the most significant thing about this discovery is the opportunities it could provide for exoplanet characterization. At just 100 light-years from Earth, it will be relatively easy for the next-generation telescopes (such as the James Webb Space Telescope) to conduct studies of their atmospheres and provide a more detailed picture of this system of planets.

In addition, these three strange planets are all in the same system, which makes conducting observation campaigns that much easier. As Rodriguez concluded:

“The GJ 9827 system is unique because one planet is smaller than this cutoff, one planet is larger, and the third planet has a radius of ~1.6  times the radius of the Earth, right on that border. So in one system, we have planets that span this rock to gas transition. This is important because we can study the atmosphere’s of these planets, look for differences in the composition of their atmospheres and begin to understand why this transition occurs at 1.6 times the radius of the Earth. Since all three planets orbit the same star, the effect of the host star is kept constant in this “experiment”. Therefore, if these three planets in GJ 9827 were instead orbiting three separate stars, we would have to worry about how the host star is influencing or affecting the planet’s atmosphere. In the GJ 9827 system, we do not have to worry about this since they orbit the same star.”

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

NASA Announces 10, That’s Right 10! New Planets in Their Star’s Habitable Zone

Artist's impression of rocky exoplanets orbiting Gliese 832, a red dwarf star just 16 light-years from Earth. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

The Kepler space telescope is surely the gift that keeps on giving. After being deployed in 2009, it went on to detect a total of 2,335 confirmed exoplanets and 582 multi-planet systems. Even after two of its reaction wheels failed, it carried on with its K2 mission, which has discovered an additional 520 candidates, 148 of which have been confirmed. And with yet another extension, which will last beyond 2018, it shows no signs of stopping!

In the most recent catalog to be released by the Kepler mission, an additional 219 new planet candidates have been added to its database. More significantly, 10 of these planets were found to be terrestrial (i.e. rocky), of comparable in size to Earth and orbited within their star’s habitable zone – the distance where surface temperatures would be warm enough to support liquid water.

These findings were presented at a news conference on Monday, June 19th, at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Of all the catalogs of Kepler candidates that have been released to date, this one is the most comprehensive and detailed. The eighth in a series of Kepler exoplanet catalogs, this one is based on data that was obtained from the first four years of the mission and is the final catalog that covers the spacecraft’s observations of the Cygnus constellation.

 Credits: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

Since 2014, Kepler has ceased looking at a set starfield in the Cygnus constellation and has been collecting data on its second mission – observing fields on the plane of the ecliptic of the Milky Way Galaxy. With the release of this catalog, there are now 4,034 planet candidates that have been identified by Kepler – of which 2,335 have been verified.

An important aspect of this catalog were the methods that were used for producing it, which were the most sophisticated to date. As with all planets detected by Kepler, the latest finds were all made using the transit method. This consists of monitoring stars for occasional dips in brightness, which is used to confirm the presence of planets transiting between the star and the observer.

To ensure that the detections in this latest catalog were real, the team relied on two approaches to eliminate false positives. This consisted of introducing simulated transits into the dataset to make sure the dips that Kepler detected were consistent with planets. Then, they added false signals to see how often the analysis mistook these for planet transits. From this, they were able to tell which planets were overcounted and which were undercounted.

This led to another exciting find, which was the indication that for all of the smaller exoplanets discovered by Kepler, most fell within one of two distinct groupings. Essentially, half the planets that we know of in the galaxy are either rocky in nature and larger than Earth (i.e. Super-Earth’s), or are gas giants that are comparable in size to Neptune (i.e. smaller gas giants).

This conclusion was reached by a team of researchers who used the W.M. Keck Observatory to measure the sizes of 1,300 stars in the Kepler field of view. From this, they were able to determine the radii of 2,000 Kepler planets with extreme precision, and found that there was a clear division between rocky, Earth-sized planets and gaseous planets smaller than Neptune – with few in between.

As Benjamin Fulton, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa and the lead author of this study, explained:

“We like to think of this study as classifying planets in the same way that biologists identify new species of animals. Finding two distinct groups of exoplanets is like discovering mammals and lizards make up distinct branches of a family tree.”

These results are sure to have drastic implications when it comes to knowing the frequency of different types of planets in our galaxy, as well as the study of planet formation. For instance, they noted that most rocky planets discovered by Kepler are up to 75% larger than Earth. And for reasons that are not yet clear, about half of them take on hydrogen and helium, which swells their size to the point that they become almost Neptune-sized.

Histogram shows the number of planets per 100 stars as a function of planet size relative to Earth. Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/CalTech/University of Hawaii/B.J. Fulton

These findings could similarly have significant implications in the search for habitable planets and extra-terrestrial life. As Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during the presentation:

“The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs – planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth. Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth.”

From this information, scientists will be able to know with a greater degree of certainty just how many “Earth-like” planets exist within our galaxy. The most recent estimates place the number of planets in the Milky Way at about 100 billion. And based on this data, it would seem that many of these are similar in composition to Earth, albeit larger.

Combined with a statistical models of how many of these can be found within a circumstellar habitable zone, we should have a better idea of just how many potentially-life-bearing worlds are out there. If nothing else, this should simplify some of the math in the Drake Equation!

In the meantime, the Kepler space telescope will continue to make observations of nearby star systems in order to learn more about their exoplanets. This includes the TRAPPIST-1 system and its seven Earth-sized, rocky planets. Its a safe bet that before it is finally retired after 2018, it will have some more surprises in store for us!

Further Reading: NASA, NASA Kepler and K2

Kepler ‘K2’ Finds First Exoplanet, A ‘Super-Earth’, While Surfing Sun’s Pressure Wave For Control

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s alive! NASA’s Kepler space telescope had to stop planet-hunting during Earth’s northern-hemisphere summer 2013 when a second of its four pointing devices (reaction wheels) failed. But using a new technique that takes advantage of the solar wind, Kepler has found its first exoplanet since the K2 mission was publicly proposed in November 2013.

And despite a loss of pointing precision, Kepler’s find was a smaller planet — a super-Earth! It’s likely a water world or a rocky core shrouded in a thick, Neptune-like atmosphere. Called HIP 116454b, it’s 2.5 times the size of Earth and a whopping 12 times the mass. It circles its dwarf star quickly, every 9.1 days, and is about 180 light-years from Earth.

“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries. Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies,” stated lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Kepler ferrets out exoplanets from their parent stars while watching for transits — when a world passes across the face of its parent sun. This is easiest to find on huge planets that are orbiting dim stars, such as red dwarfs. The smaller the planet and/or brighter the star, the more difficult it is to view the tiny shadow.

Infographic showing how the Kepler space telescope continued searching for planets despite two busted reaction wheels. Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel
Infographic showing how the Kepler space telescope continued searching for planets despite two busted reaction wheels. Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

The telescope needs at least three reaction wheels to point consistently in space, which it did for four years, gazing at the Cygnus constellation. (And there’s still a lot of data to come from that mission, including the follow-up to a bonanza where Kepler detected hundreds of new exoplanets using a new technique for multiple-planet systems.)

But now, Kepler needs an extra hand to do so. Without a mechanic handy to send out to telescope’s orbit around the Sun, scientists decided instead to use sunlight pressure as a sort of “virtual” reaction wheel. The K2 mission underwent several tests and was approved budgetarily in May, through 2016.

The drawback is Kepler needs to change positions every 83 days since the Sun eventually gets in the telescope’s viewfinder; also, there are losses in precision compared to the original mission. The benefit is it can also observe objects such as supernovae and star clusters.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

“Due to Kepler’s reduced pointing capabilities, extracting useful data requires sophisticated computer analysis,” CFA added in a statement. “Vanderburg and his colleagues developed specialized software to correct for spacecraft movements, achieving about half the photometric precision of the original Kepler mission.”

That said, the first nine-day test with K2 yielded one planetary transit that was confirmed with measurements of the star’s “wobble” as the planet tugged on it, using the HARPS-North spectrograph on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. A small Canadian satellite called MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of STars) also found transits, albeit weakly.

A paper based on the research will appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

Kepler Space Telescope Gets A New Exoplanet-Hunting Mission

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After several months with their telescope on the sidelines, the Kepler space telescope team has happy news to report: the exoplanet hunter is going to do a new mission that will compensate for the failure that stopped its original work.

Kepler’s exoplanet days were halted last year when the second of its four reaction wheels (pointing devices) failed, which meant the telescope could not gaze at its “field” of stars in the Cygnus constellation for signs of exoplanets transiting their stars.

Results of a NASA Senior Review today, however, showed that the telescope will receive the funding for the K2 mission, which allows for some exoplanet hunting, among other tasks. The telescope will essentially change positions several times a year to do its new mission, which is funded through 2016.

“The approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae,” wrote Charlie Sobeck, the mission manager for Kepler, in a mission update today (May 16).

Artist’s rendering of the Earth-sized Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)
Artist’s rendering of the Earth-sized Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

“The team is currently finishing up an end-to-end shakedown of this approach with a full-length campaign (Campaign 0), and is preparing for Campaign 1, the first K2 science observation run, scheduled to begin May 30.”

While Kepler itself was not being used for planet hunting, scientific discoveries continue because the telescope has a legacy of observations stretching between 2009 and 2013. One notable find: 715 exoplanets were announced in one swoop earlier this year using a new technique called “verification by multiplicity”, which is useful in multiple-planet systems.

Kepler also spotted the first known Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone outside of our solar system, which achieves the mission’s stated goal of finding extrasolar Earths.

Read more about NASA’s 2014 senior science review at this website.