At times, it seems like there’s an indundation of announcements featuring discoveries of “Earth-like” planets. And while those announcements are exciting, and scientifically noteworthy, there’s always a little question picking away at them: exactly how Earth-like are they, really?
After all, Earth is defined by its relationship with the Sun.
Scientists working with data from the Kepler mission have discovered an additional 18 Earth-sized worlds. The team used a newer, more stringent method of combing through the data to find these planets. Among the 18 is the smallest exoplanet ever found.
How can two planets so similar in some respects have such different densities? According to a new study, a catastrophic collision may be to blame.
In our Solar System, all the inner planets are small rocky worlds with similar densities, while the outer planets are gas giants with their own similar densities. But not all solar systems are like ours.
In September of 2015, the star KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star) captured the world’s attention when it was found to be experiencing a mysterious drop in brightness. In the years since then, multiple studies have been conducted that have tried to offer a natural explanation for this behavior – and even an unnatural one (i.e. the “alien megastructure” theory). At the same time, multiple observatories have been tracking the star regularly for further dimming.
Well, it seems that Tabby’s Star is at it again! On Friday, March 16th, Tabetha Boyajian (the astronomer who was responsible for discovering the star’s variations in flux) and her colleagues reported that the star was dimming yet again. As they indicated recently their blog – Where’s the Flux? – the star experienced its greatest dip since it was observed by the Kepler mission in 2013.
Since its deployment in March of 2009, the Kepler space telescope has been a boon for exoplanet-hunters. As of March 8th, 2018, a total of 3,743 exoplanets have been confirmed, 2,649 of which were discovered by Kepler alone. At the same time, the telescope has suffered its share of technical challenges. These include the failure of two reaction wheels, which severely hampered the telescope’s ability to conduct its original mission.
Nevertheless, the Kepler team was able to return the telescope to a stable configuration by using small amounts of thruster fuel to compensate for the failed reaction wheels. Unfortunately, after almost four years conducting its K2 observation campaign, the Kepler telescope is now running out fuel. Based on its remaining fuel and rate of consumption, NASA estimates that the telescope’s mission will end in a few months.
For years, the Kepler space telescope has been locating planets around distant stars using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry). This consists of monitors stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are caused by a planet passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting). Of all the methods used to hunt for exoplanets, the Transit Method is considered the most reliable, accounting for a total of 2900 discoveries.
Naturally, this news comes as a disappointment to astronomers and exoplanet enthusiasts. But before anyone starts lamenting the situation, they should keep some things in mind. For one, the Kepler mission has managed to last longer than anyone expected. Ever since the K2 campaign began, the telescope has been required to shift its field of view about every three months to conduct a new observation campaign.
Based on their original estimates, the Kepler team believed they had enough fuel to conduct 10 more campaigns. However, the mission has already completed 16 campaigns and the team just began their 17th. As Charlie Sobeck, a system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“Our current estimates are that Kepler’s tank will run dry within several months – but we’ve been surprised by its performance before! So, while we anticipate flight operations ending soon, we are prepared to continue as long as the fuel allows. The Kepler team is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can’t aim the spacecraft for data transfer. We even have plans to take some final calibration data with the last bit of fuel, if the opportunity presents itself.”
So while the mission is due to end soon, the science team hopes to gather as much scientific data as possible and beam it back to Earth before then. They also hope to gather some final calibration data using the telescope’s last bit of fuel, should the opportunity present itself. And since they cannot refuel the spacecraft, they hope to stop collecting data so they can use their last bit of fuel to point the spacecraft back towards Earth and bring it home.
“Without a gas gauge, we have been monitoring the spacecraft for warning signs of low fuel— such as a drop in the fuel tank’s pressure and changes in the performance of the thrusters,” said Sobeck. “But in the end, we only have an estimate – not precise knowledge. Taking these measurements helps us decide how long we can comfortably keep collecting scientific data.”
This has been standard practice for many NASA missions, where enough fuel has been reserved to conduct one last maneuver. For example, the Cassini mission had to reserve fuel in order to descend into Saturn’s atmosphere so it would avoid colliding with one of its moons and contaminating a potentially life-bearing environment. Satellites also regularly conduct final maneuvers to ensure they don’t crash into other satellites or fall to Earth.
While deep-space missions like Kepler are in no danger of crashing to Earth or contaminating a sensitive environment, this final maneuver is designed to ensure that the science team can squeeze every last drop of data from the spacecraft. So before the mission wraps up, we can expect that this venerated planet-hunter will have some final surprises for us!
In the coming years, next-generation telescopes will be taking to space to pick up where Kepler and other space telescopes left off. These include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite(TESS), which will be conducting Transit surveys shortly after it launches in April of 2018. By 2019, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will also take to space and use its powerful infrared instruments to aid in the hunt for exoplanets.
So while we will soon be saying goodbye to the Kepler mission, its legacy will live on. In truth, the days of exoplanet discovery are just getting started!
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.
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).”
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.
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.”
When it comes to looking for life on extra-solar planets, scientists rely on what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach. In lieu of being able to observe these planets directly or up close, they are forced to look for “biosignatures” – substances that indicate that life could exist there. Given that Earth is the only planet (that we know of) that can support life, these include carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and water.
However, while the presence of these elements are a good way of gauging “habitability”, they are not necessarily indications that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist. Hence why scientists engaged in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) also keep their eyes peeled for “technosignatures”. Targeting the Kepler field, a team of scientists recently conducted a study that examined 14 planetary systems for indications of intelligent life.
Together, the team selected 14 systems from the Kepler catalog and examined them for technosignatures. While radio waves are a common occurrence in the cosmos, not all sources can be easily attributed to natural causes. Where and when this is the case, scientists conduct additional studies to try and rule out the possibility that they are a technosignature. As Professor Margot told Universe Today via email:
“In our article, we define a “technosignature” as any measurable property or effect that provides scientific evidence of past or present technology, by analogy with “biosignatures,” which provide evidence of past or present life.”
For the sake of their study, the team conducted an L-band radio survey of these 14 planetary systems. Specifically, they looked for signs of radio waves in the 1.15 to 1.73 gigahertz (GHz) range. At those frequencies, their study is sensitive to Arecibo-class transmitters located within 450 light-years of Earth. So if any of these systems have civilizations capable of building radio observatories comparable to Arecibo, the team hoped to find out!
“We searched for signals that are narrow (< 10 Hz) in the frequency domain,” said Margot. “Such signals are technosignatures because natural sources do not emit such narrowband signals… We identified approximately 850,000 candidate signals, of which 19 were of particular interest. Ultimately, none of these signals were attributable to an extraterrestrial source.”
What they found was that of the 850,000 candidate signals, about 99% of them were automatically ruled out because they were quickly determined to be the result of human-generated radio-frequency interference (RFI). Of the remaining candidates, another 99% were also flagged as anthropogenic because their frequencies overlapped with other known sources of RFI – such as GPS systems, satellites, etc.
The 19 candidate signals that remained were heavily scrutinized, but none could be attributed to an extraterrestrial source. This is key when attempting to distinguish potential signs of intelligence from radio signals that come from the only intelligence we know of (i.e. us!) Hence why astronomers have historically been intrigued by strong narrowband signals (like the WOW! Signal, detected in 1977) and the Lorimer Burst detected in 2007.
In these cases, the sources appeared to be coming from the Messier 55 globular cluster and the Large Magellanic Cloud, respectively. The latter was especially fascinating since it was the first time that astronomers had observered what are now known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). Such bursts, especially when they are repeating in nature, are considered to be one of the best candidates in the search for intelligent, technologically-advanced life.
Unfortunately, these sources are still being investigated and scientists cannot attribute them to unnatural causes just yet. And as Professor Margot indicated, this study (which covered only 14 of the many thousand exoplanets discovered by Kepler) is just the tip of the iceberg:
“Our study encompassed only a small fraction of the search volume. For instance, we covered less than five-millionths of the entire sky. We are eager to scale the effort to sample a larger fraction of the search volume. We are currently seeking funds to expand our search.”
It would therefore be no exaggeration to say that the hunt for ETI is still in its infancy, and our efforts are definitely beginning to pick up speed. There is literally a Universe of possibilities out there and to think that there are no other civilizations that are also looking for us seems downright unfathomable. To quote the late and great Carl Sagan: “The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
And be sure to check out this video of the 2017 UCLA SETI Group, courtesy of the UCLA EPSS department:
Finding planets beyond our Solar System is already tough, laborious work. But when it comes to confirmed exoplanets, an even more challenging task is determining whether or not these worlds have their own satellites – aka. “exomoons”. Nevertheless, much like the study of exoplanets themselves, the study of exomoons presents some incredible opportunities to learn more about our Universe.
Of all possible candidates, the most recent (and arguably, most likely) one was announced back in July 2017. This moon, known as Kepler-1625 b-i, orbits a gas giant roughly 4,000 light years from Earth. But according to a new study, this exomoon may actually be a Neptune-sized gas giant itself. If true, this will constitute the first instance where a gas giant has been found orbiting another gas giant.
Within the Solar System, moons tell us much about their host planet’s formation and evolution. In the same way, the study of exomoons is likely to provide insight into extra-solar planetary systems. As Dr. Heller explained to Universe Today via email, these studies could also shed light on whether or not these systems have habitable planets:
“Moons have proven to be extremely helpful to study the formation and evolution of the planets in the solar system. The Earth’s Moon, for example, was key to set the initial astrophysical conditions, such as the total mass of the Earth and the Earth’s primordial spin state, for what has become our habitable environment. As another example, the Galilean moons around Jupiter have been used to study the conditions of the primordial accretion disk around Jupiter from which the planet pulled its mass 4.5 billion years ago. This accretion disk has long gone, but the moons that formed within the disk are still there. And so we can use the moons, in particular their contemporary composition and water contents, to study planet formation in the far past.”
When it comes to the Kepler-1625 star system, previous studies were able to produce estimates of the radii of both Kepler-1625 b and its possible moon, based on three observed transits it made in front of its star. The light curves produced by these three observed transits are what led to the theory that Kepler-1625 had a Neptune-size exomoon orbiting it, and at a distance of about 20 times the planet’s radius.
But as Dr. Heller indicated in his study, radial velocity measurements of the host star (Kepler-1625) were not considered, which would have produced mass estimates for both bodies. To address this, Dr. Heller considered various mass regimes in addition to the planet and moon’s apparent sizes based on their observed signatures. Beyond that, he also attempted to place the planet and moon into the context of moon formation in the Solar System.
The first step, accroding to Dr. Heller, was to conduct estimates of the possible mass of the exomoon candidate and its host planet based on the properties that were shown in the transit lightcurves observed by Kepler.
“A dynamical interpretation of the data suggests that the host planet is a roughly Jupiter-sized (“size” in terms of radius) brown dwarf with a mass of almost 18 Jupiter masses,” he said. “The uncertainties, however, are very large mostly due to the noisiness of the Kepler data and due to the low number of transits (three). In fact, the host object could be a Jupiter-like planet or even be a moderate-sized brown dwarf of up to 37 Jupiter masses. The mass of the moon candidate ranges somewhere between a super-Earth of a few Earth masses and Neptune’s mass.”
Next, Dr. Heller compared the relative mass of the exomoon candidate and Kepler-1625 b and compared this value to various planets and moons of the Solar System. This step was necessary because the moons of the Solar System show two distinct populations, based the mass of the planets compared to their moon-to-planet mass ratios. These comparisons indicate that a moon’s mass is closely related to how it formed.
For instance, moons that formed through impacts – such as Earth’s Moon, and Pluto’s moon Charon – are relatively heavy, whereas moons that formed from a planet’s accretion disk are relatively light. While Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is the most massive moon in the Solar System, it is rather diminutive and tiny compared to Jupiter itself – the largest and most massive body in the Solar System.
In the end, the results Dr. Heller obtained proved to be rather interesting. Basically, they indicated that Kepler-1625 b-i cannot be definitively placed in either of these families (heavy, impact moons vs. lighter, accretion moons). As Dr. Heller explained:
“[T]]he most reasonable scenarios suggest that the moon candidate is more of the heavy kind, which suggests it should have formed through an impact. However, this exomoon, if real, is most likely gaseous. The solar system moons are all rocky/icy bodies without a significant gas envelope (Titan has a thick atmosphere but its mass is negligible). So how would a gas giant moon have formed through an impact? I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody knows.
“Alternatively, in a third scenario, Kepler-1625 b-i could have formed through capture, but this implies a very unlikely progenitor planetary binary system, from which it was pulled into a bound orbit around Kepler-1625 b, while its former planetary companion was ejected from the system.”
What was equally interesting were the mass estimates for Keple-1625 b, which Dr. Heller averaged to be 19 Jupiter masses, but could be as high as 112 Jupiter Masses. This means that the host planet could be anything from a gas giant that is just slightly larger than Saturn to a Brown Dwarf or even a Very-Low-Mass-Star (VLMS). So rather than a gas giant moon orbiting a gas giant, we could be dealing with a gas giant moon orbiting a small star, which together orbit a larger star!
It’s the stuff science fiction is made of! And while this study cannot provide exact mass constraints on Keplder-1625 b and its possible moon, its significance cannot be denied. Beyond providing astrophysicists with the first possible example of a gas giant moon, this study is of immense significance as far as the study of exoplanet systems is concerned. If and when Kepler-1625 b-i is confirmed, it will tell us much about the conditions under which its host formed.
In the meantime, more observations are needed to confirm or rule out the existence of this moon. Fortunately, these observations will be taking place in the very near future. When Kepler-1625 b makes it next transit – on October 29th, 2017 – the Hubble Space Telescope will be watching! Based on the light curves it observes coming from the star, scientist should be able to get a better idea of whether or not this mysterious moon is real and what it looks like.
“If the moon turns out to be a ghost in the data, then most of this study would not be applicable to the Kepler-1625 system,” said Dr. Heller. “The paper would nevertheless present an example study of how to classify future exomoons and how to put them into the context of the solar system. Alternatively, if Kepler-1625 b-i turns out to be a genuine exomoon, then my study suggests that we have found a new kind of moon that has a very different formation history than the moons we know as of today. Certainly an exquisite riddle for astrophysicists to solve.”
The study of exoplanet systems is like pealing an onion, albeit in a dark room with the lights turned off. With every successive layer scientists peel back, the more mysteries they find. And with the deployment of next-generation telescopes in the near future, we are bound to learn a great deal more!
The mystery of KIC 8462852 (aka. Boyajian’s Star or Tabby’s Star) continues to excite and intrigue! Ever since it was first seen to be undergoing strange and sudden dips in brightness (back 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 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”.
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.
“We have discovered two transiting warm Jupiter exoplanets initially identified as transiting candidates in K2 photometry… Both 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.”
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.”
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.