Astronomers Find Another Solar System with 8 Planets. Uh, Pluto, About that Deplaneting…

In a series of papers, Professor Loeb and Michael Hippke indicate that conventional rockets would have a hard time escaping from certain kinds of extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle
In a series of papers, Professor Loeb and Michael Hippke indicate that conventional rockets would have a hard time escaping from certain kinds of extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

With every passing year, more and more extra-solar planets are discovered. To make matters more interesting, improvements in methodology and technology are allowing for the discovery of more planets within individual systems. Consider the recent announcement of a seven-planet system around the red dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. At the time, this discovery established the record for most exoplanets orbiting a single star.

Well move over TRAPPIST-1! Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope and machine learning, a team from Google AI and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) recently discovered an eighth planet in the distant star system of Kepler-90. Known as Kepler -90i, the discovery of this planet was made possible thanks to Google algorithms that detected evidence of a weak transit signal in the Kepler mission data.

Continue reading “Astronomers Find Another Solar System with 8 Planets. Uh, Pluto, About that Deplaneting…”

What is the Transit Method?

In a series of papers, Professor Loeb and Michael Hippke indicate that conventional rockets would have a hard time escaping from certain kinds of extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle
In a series of papers, Professor Loeb and Michael Hippke indicate that conventional rockets would have a hard time escaping from certain kinds of extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

Welcome all to the first in our series on Exoplanet-hunting methods. Today we begin with the most popular and widely-used, known as the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry).

For centuries, astronomers have speculated about the existence of planets beyond our Solar System. After all, with between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, it seemed unlikely that ours was the only one to have a system of planets. But it has only been within the past few decades that astronomers have confirmed the existence of extra-solar planets (aka. exoplanets).

Astronomers use various methods to confirm the existence of exoplanets, most of which are indirect in nature. Of these, the most widely-used and effective to date has been Transit Photometry, a method that measures the light curve of distant stars for periodic dips in brightness. These are the result of exoplanets passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer.


These changes in brightness are characterized by very small dips and for fixed periods of time, usually in the vicinity of 1/10,000th of the star’s overall brightness and only for a matter of hours. These changes are also periodic, causing the same dips in brightness each time and for the same amount of time. Based on the extent to which stars dim, astronomers are also able to obtain vital information about exoplanets.

For all of these reasons, Transit Photometry is considered a very robust and reliable method of exoplanet detection. Of the 3,526 extra-solar planets that have been confirmed to date, the transit method has accounted for 2,771 discoveries – which is more than all the other methods combined.


One of the greatest advantages of Transit Photometry is the way it can provide accurate constraints on the size of detected planets. Obviously, this is based on the extent to which a star’s light curve changes as a result of a transit.  Whereas a small planet will cause a subtle change in brightness, a larger planet will cause a more noticeable change.

When combined with the Radial Velocity method (which can determine the planet’s mass) one can determine the density of the planet. From this, astronomers are able to assess a planet’s physical structure and composition – i.e. determining if it is a gas giant or rocky planet. The planets that have been studied using both of these methods are by far the best-characterized of all known exoplanets.

In addition to revealing the diameter of planets, Transit Photometry can allow for a planet’s atmosphere to be investigated through spectroscopy. As light from the star passes through the planet’s atmosphere, the resulting spectra can be analyzed to determine what elements are present, thus providing clues as to the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

Artist’s impression of an extra-solar planet transiting its star. Credit: QUB Astrophysics Research Center

Last, but not least, the transit method can also reveal things about a planet’s temperature and radiation based on secondary eclipses (when the planet passes behind it’s sun). On this occasion, astronomers measure the star’s photometric intensity and then subtract it from measurements of the star’s intensity before the secondary eclipse. This allows for measurements of the planet’s temperature and can even determine the presence of clouds formations in the planet’s atmosphere.


Transit Photometry also suffers from a few major drawbacks. For one, planetary transits are observable only when the planet’s orbit happens to be perfectly aligned with the astronomers’ line of sight. The probability of a planet’s orbit coinciding with an observer’s vantage point is equivalent to the ratio of the diameter of the star to the diameter of the orbit.

Only about 10% of planets with short orbital periods experience such an alignment, and this decreases for planets with longer orbital periods. As a result, this method cannot guarantee that a particular star being observed does indeed host any planets. For this reason, the transit method is most effective when surveying thousands or hundreds of thousands of stars at a time.

It also suffers from a substantial rate of false positives; in some cases, as high as 40% in single-planet systems (based on a 2012 study of the Kepler mission). This necessitates that follow-up observations be conducted, often relying on another method. However, the rate of false positives drops off for stars where multiple candidates have been detected.

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

While transits can reveal much about a planet’s diameter, they cannot place accurate constraints on a planet’s mass. For this, the Radial Velocity method (as noted earlier) is the most reliable, where astronomers look for signs of “wobble” in a star’s orbit to the measure the gravitational forces acting on them (which are caused by planets).

In short, the transit method has some limitations and is most effective when paired with other methods. Nevertheless, it remains the most widely-used means of “primary detection” – detecting candidates which are later confirmed using a different method – and is responsible for more exoplanet discoveries than all other methods combined.

Examples of Transit Photometry Surveys:

Transit Photometry is performed by multiple Earth-based and space-based observatories around the world. The majority, however, are Earth-based, and rely on existing telescopes combined with state-of-the-art photometers. Examples include the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets (SuperWASP) survey, an international exoplanet-hunting survey that relies on the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

There’s also the Hungarian Automated Telescope Network (HATNet), which consists of six small, fully-automated  telescopes and is maintained by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The MEarth Project is another, a National Science Foundation-funded robotic observatory that combines the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) in Arizona with the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.

The SuperWasp Cameras at the South African Astronomical Observatory. Credit: SuperWASP project & David Anderson

Then there’s the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT), an astronomical survey jointly administered by Ohio State University, Vanderbilt University, Lehigh University, and the South African Astronomical Society (SAAO). This survey consists of two telescopes, the Winer Observatory in southeastern Arizona and the Sutherland Astronomical Observation Station in South Africa.

In terms of space-based observatories, the most notable example is NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. During its initial mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013, Kepler detected 4,496 planetary candidates and confirmed the existence of 2,337 exoplanets. In November of 2013, after the failure of two of its reaction wheels, the telescope began its K2 mission, during which time an additional 515 planets have been detected and 178 have been confirmed.

The Hubble Space Telescope also conducted transit surveys during its many years in orbit. For instance, the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS) – which took place in 2006 – consisted of Hubble observing 180,000 stars in the central bulge of the Milky Way Galaxy. This survey revealed the existence of 16 additional exoplanets.

Other examples include the ESA’s COnvection ROtation et Transits planétaires (COROT) – in English “Convection rotation and planetary transits” – which operated from 2006 to 2012. Then there’s the ESA’s Gaia mission, which launched in 2013 with the purpose of creating the largest 3D catalog ever made, consisting of over 1 billion astronomical objects.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets. Credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

In March of 2018, the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to be launched into orbit. Using the transit method, TESS will detect exoplanets and also select targets for further study by the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT), which will be deployed in 2019. Between these two missions, the confirmation and characterization or many thousands of exoplanets is anticipated.

Thanks to improvements in terms of technology and methodology, exoplanet discovery has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. With thousands of exoplanets confirmed, the focus has gradually shifted towards the characterizing of these planets to learn more about their atmospheres and conditions on their surface.

In the coming decades, thanks in part to the deployment of new missions, some very profound discoveries are expected to be made!

We have many interesting articles about exoplanet-hunting here at Universe Today. Here’s What are Extra Solar Planets?, What are Planetary Transits?, What is the Radial Velocity Method?, What is the Direct Imaging Method?, What is the Gravitational Microlensing Method?, and Kepler’s Universe: More Planets in our Galaxy than Stars.

Astronomy Cast also has some interesting episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 364: The COROT Mission.

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s page on Exoplanet Exploration, the Planetary Society’s page on Extrasolar Planets, and the NASA/Caltech Exoplanet Archive.


Astronomers Find Comets Orbiting a Star 800 Light-Years Away

An artist’s conception of a view from within the Exocomet system KIC 3542116.. Credit: Danielle Futselaar

In the past thirty years, thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System. For the most part, they have been detected by the Kepler Space Telescope using a technique called Transit Photometry. For this method, astronomers measure periodic dips in a star’s brightness – which are the result of planets passing in front of them relative to an observer – to confirm the presence of planets.

Thanks to a new research effort conducted by a team of professional and amateur astronomers, something much smaller than planets were recently detected orbiting a distant star. According to a new study published by the research team, six exocomets were observed orbiting around KIC 3542116, a spectral type F2V star located 800 light years from Earth. These comets are the smallest objects to date detecting the Transit Photometry method.

The study which details their findings, titled “Likely Transiting Exocomets Detected by Kepler“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Saul Rappaport of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, the team also consisted of amateur astronomers, members of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the University of Texas, Northeastern University, and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Artist’s impression of an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments around Tabby’s Star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the first time that Transit Photometry has been used to detect object as small as comets. These comets were balls of ice and dust – comparable in size to Halley’s Comet – that were found to be traveling at speeds of about 160,934 km/h (100,000 mph) before they vaporized. The researchers were able to detect them by picking out their tails, the clouds of dust and gas that form when comets get closer to their star and begin to sublimate.

This was no easy task, since the tails managed to obscure only about a tenth of 1% of the star’s light. As Saul Rappaport, who is also the professor emeritus of physics at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, explained in an MIT press release:

“It’s amazing that something several orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth can be detected just by the fact that it’s emitting a lot of debris. It’s pretty impressive to be able to see something so small, so far away.”

Credit for the original detection goes to Thomas Jacobs, an amateur astronomer who lives in Bellevue, Washington, and is a member of Planet Hunters. This citizen scientist project was first established by Yale University and consists of amateur astronomers who dedicated their time to the search for exoplanets. Members are given access to data from the Kepler Space Telescope in the hopes that they would notice things that computer algorithms might miss.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets. Credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

Back in January, Jacobs began scanning four years of data obtained during Kepler‘s main mission. During this phase, which lasted from 2009 to 2013, Kepler scanned over 200,000 stars and conducted measurements of their light curves. After five months of sifting through the data (on March 18th), he noticed several curious light patterns amid background noise coming from KIC 3542116. As Jacobs said:

“Looking for objects of interest in the Kepler data requires patience, persistence, and perseverance. For me it is a form of treasure hunting, knowing that there is an interesting event waiting to be discovered. It is all about exploration and being on the hunt where few have traveled before.”

Specifically, Jacobs was searching for signs of single transits, which are not like those that are caused by planets orbiting a star (i.e. periodic). While looking at KIC 3542116, he noticed three single transits, and then alerted Rappaport and Andrew Vanderburg, as astrophysicist at University of Texas and member of the CfA. Jacobs had worked with both men in the past, and wanted their opinion on these findings.

As Rapport recalled, the process of interpreting the data was challenging, but rewarding. Initially, they noted that the lightcurves did not resemble those caused by planetary transits, which are characterized by a sudden and sharp drop in light, followed by a sharp rise. In time, Rapport noted the asymmetry in the three lightcurves resembled those of disintegrated planets, which they had observed before.

Artist’s impression of the Epsilon Eridani system, showing Epsilon Eridani b (a Jupiter-mass planet) and a series of asteroid belts and comets. Credit: NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook.

“We sat on this for a month, because we didn’t know what it was — planet transits don’t look like this,” said Rappaport. “Then it occurred to me that, ‘Hey, these look like something we’ve seen before’… We thought, the only kind of body that could do the same thing and not repeat is one that probably gets destroyed in the end. The only thing that fits the bill, and has a small enough mass to get destroyed, is a comet.”

Based on their calculations, which indicated that each comet blocked out about one-tenth of 1% of the star’s light, the research team concluded that the comet likely disintegrated entirely, creating a dust trail that was sufficient to block out light for several months before it disappeared. After conducting additional observations, they also noted three more transits in the same time period that were similar to the ones noticed by Jacobs.

The fact that these six exocomets appear to have transited very close to their star in the past four years raises some interesting questions, and answering them could have drastic implications for extra-solar research. It could also advance our understanding of our own Solar System. As Vanderburg explained:

“Why are there so many comets in the inner parts of these solar systems? Is this an extreme bombardment era in these systems? That was a really important part of our own solar system formation and may have brought water to Earth. Maybe studying exocomets and figuring out why they are found around this type of star… could give us some insight into how bombardment happens in other solar systems.”

This artist’s conception illustrates a storm of comets around a star near our own. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, the Solar System also experienced a period of intense comet activity known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. During this time, asteroids and comets are believed to have impacted bodies in the inner Solar System on a regular basis. Interestingly, this period of heavy bombardment is believed to be what was responsible for the distribution of water to Earth and the other terrestrial planets.

As noted, KIC 3542116 belongs to the spectral type F2V, a yellow-white class of star that is typically 1 to 1.4 times as massive as our Sun and quite bright. Since it is comparable in size and mass to our Sun, it is possible that the bombardment period it is experiencing is similar to what the Solar System went through. Watching it unfold could therefore tell us much about how similar activity influenced the evolution of our Solar System billions of years ago.

In addition to the study’s significance to the study of astrophysics and astronomy, it also demonstrates the important role citizen scientists play today. Were it not for the tireless work performed by Jacobs, who sifts through Kepler data between working his day job and on the weekends, this discovery would not have been possible.

“I could name 10 types of things these people have found in the Kepler data that algorithms could not find, because of the pattern-recognition capability in the human eye,” said Rappaport. “You could now write a computer algorithm to find this kind of comet shape. But they were missed in earlier searches. They were deep enough but didn’t have the right shape that was programmed into algorithms. I think it’s fair to say this would never have been found by any algorithm.”

In the future, the research team expects that the deployment Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – which will be led by MIT – will continue to conduct the type of research performed by Kepler.

Further Reading: MIT, MNRAS

This is Kind of Sad. Astronomers Find a Failed Star Orbiting a Dead Star

Artist's impression of a brown dwarf orbiting a white dwarf star. Credit: ESO

Death is simply a part of life, and this is no less the case where stars and other astronomical objects are concerned. Sure, the timelines are much, much greater where these are concerned, but the basic rule is the same. Much like all living organism, stars eventually reach old age and become white dwarfs. And some are not even fortunate enough to be born, instead becoming a class of failed stars known as brown dwarfs.

Despite being familiar with these objects, astronomers were certainly not expecting to find examples of both in a single star system! And yet, according to a new study, that is precisely what an international team of astronomers discovered when looked at WD 1202-024. Using data from the Kepler space telescope, they spotted a binary system consisting of a failed star (a brown dwarf) and the remnant of a star (a white dwarf).

Continue reading “This is Kind of Sad. Astronomers Find a Failed Star Orbiting a Dead Star”

Focusing On ‘Second-Earth’ Candidates In The Kepler Catalog

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

The ongoing hunt for exoplanets has yielded some very interesting returns in recent years. All told, the Kepler mission has discovered more than 4000 candidates since it began its mission in March of 2009. Amidst the many “Super-Jupiters” and assorted gas giants (which account for the majority of Kepler’s discoveries) astronomers have been particularly interested in those exoplanets which resemble Earth.

And now, an international team of scientists has finished perusing the Kepler catalog in an effort to determine just how many of these planets are in fact “Earth-like”. Their study, titled “A Catalog of Kepler Habitable Zone Exoplanet Candidates” (which will be published soon in the Astrophysical Journal), explains how the team discovered 216 planets that are both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s “habitable zone” (HZ).

The international team was made up of researchers from NASA, San Francisco State University, Arizona State University, Caltech, University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of Bordeaux, Cornell University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Having spent the past three years looking over the more than 4000 entries, they have determined that 20 of the candidates are most like Earth (i.e. likely habitable).

This figure shows the habitable zone for stars of different temperatures, as well as the location of terrestrial size planetary candidates and confirmed Kepler planets described in new research from SF State astronomer Stephen Kane. Some of the Solar System terrestrial planets are also shown for comparison. Credit: Chester Harman Read more at:
Figure showing the habitable zone for different types of stars, as well as the location of terrestrial size Kepler candidates. Credit: Chester Harman

As Stephen Kane, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Fransisco University and lead author of the study, explained in a recent statement:

“This is the complete catalog of all of the Kepler discoveries that are in the habitable zone of their host stars. That means we can focus in on the planets in this paper and perform follow-up studies to learn more about them, including if they are indeed habitable.”

In addition to isolating 216 terrestrial planets from the Kepler catalog, they also devised a system of four categories to determine which of these were most like Earth. These included “Recent Venus”, where conditions are like that of Venus (i.e. extremely hot); “Runaway Greenhouse”, where planets are undergoing serious heating; “Maximum Greenhouse”, where planets are within their star’s HZ; and “Recent Mars”, where conditions approximate those of Mars.

From this, they determined that of the Kepler candidates, 20 had radii less than twice that of Earth (i.e. on the smaller end of the Super-Earth category) and existed within their star’s HZ. In other words, of all the planets discovered in our local Universe, they were able to isolate those where liquid water can exist on the surface, and the gravity would likely be comparable to Earth’s and not crushing!

Earlier today, NASA announced that Kepler had confirmed the existence of 1,284 new exoplanets, the most announced at any given time. Credit: NASA
Earlier today, NASA announced that Kepler had confirmed the existence of 1,284 new exoplanets, the most announced at any given time. Credit: NASA

This is certainly exciting news, since one of the most important aspects of exoplanet hunting has been finding worlds that could support life. Naturally, it might sound a bit anthropocentric or naive to assume that planets which have similar conditions to our own would be the most likely places for it to emerge. But this is what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists seek out conditions which they know can lead to life.

“There are a lot of planetary candidates out there, and there is a limited amount of telescope time in which we can study them,” said Kane. “This study is a really big milestone toward answering the key questions of how common is life in the universe and how common are planets like the Earth.”

Professor Kane is renowned for being one of the world’s leading “planet-hunters”. In addition to discovering several hundred exoplanets (using data obtained by the Kepler mission) he is also a contributor to two upcoming satellite missions – the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the European Space Agency’s Characterizing ExOPLanet Satellite (CHEOPS).

These next-generation exoplanet hunters will pick up where Kepler left off, and are likely to benefit greatly from this recent study.

Further Reading: arXiv

Life On Kepler-62f?

Exoplanet Kepler 62f would need an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide for water to be in liquid form. Artist's Illustration: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
Exoplanet Kepler 62f would need an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide for water to be in liquid form. Artist's Illustration: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

A team of astronomers suggests that an exoplanet named 62f could be habitable. Kepler data suggests that 62f is likely a rocky planet, and could have oceans. The exoplanet is 40% larger than Earth and is 1200 light years away.

62f is part of a planetary system discovered by the Kepler mission in 2013. There are 5 planets in the system, and they orbit a star that is both cooler and smaller than our Sun. The target of this study, 62f, is the outermost of the planets in the system.

Kepler can’t tell us if a planet is habitable or not. It can only tell us something about its potential habitability. The team, led by Aomawa Shields from the UCLA department of physics and astronomy, used different modeling methods to determine if 62f could be habitable, and the answer is, maybe.

According to the study, much of 62f’s potential habitability revolves around the CO2 component of its atmosphere, if it indeed has an atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 can have a significant effect on the temperature of a planet, and hence, a significant effect on its habitability.

Earth’s atmosphere is only 0.04% carbon dioxide (and rising.) 62f would likely need to have much more CO2 than that if it were to support life. It would also require other atmospheric characteristics, .

The study modelled parameters for CO2 concentration, atmospheric density, and orbital characteristics. They simulated:

  • An atmospheric thickness from the same as Earth’s up to 12 times thicker.
  • Carbon dioxide concentrations ranging from the same as Earth’s up to 2500 times Earth’s level.
  • Multiple different orbital configurations.

It may look like the study casts its net pretty wide in order to declare a planet potentially habitable. But the simulations were pretty robust, and relied on more than a single, established modelling method to produce these results. With that in mind, the team found that there are multiple scenarios that could make 62f habitable.

“We found there are multiple atmospheric compositions that allow it to be warm enough to have surface liquid water,” said Shields, a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Program Fellow. “This makes it a strong candidate for a habitable planet.”

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Our dear, sweet Earth is the only planet where life is confirmed. Here it is, as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

As mentioned earlier, CO2 concentration is a big part of it. According to Shields, the planet would need an atmospheric entirely composed of CO2, and an atmosphere five times as dense as Earth’s to be habitable through its entire year. That means that there would be 2500 times more carbon dioxide than Earth has. This would work because the planet’s orbit may take it far enough away from the star for water to freeze, but an atmosphere this dense and this high in CO2 would keep the planet warm.

But there are other conditions that would make 62f habitable, and these include the planet’s orbital characteristics.

“But if it doesn’t have a mechanism to generate lots of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere to keep temperatures warm, and all it had was an Earth-like amount of carbon dioxide, certain orbital configurations could allow Kepler-62f’s surface temperatures to temporarily get above freezing during a portion of its year,” said Shields. “And this might help melt ice sheets formed at other times in the planet’s orbit.”

Shields and her team used multiple modelling methods to produce these results. The climate was modelled using the Community Climate System Model and the Laboratoire de Me´te´orologie Dynamique Generic model. The planet’s orbital characteristics were modelled using HNBody. This study represents the first time that these modelling methods were combined, and this combined method can be used on other planets.

Shields said, “This will help us understand how likely certain planets are to be habitable over a wide range of factors, for which we don’t yet have data from telescopes. And it will allow us to generate a prioritized list of targets to follow up on more closely with the next generation of telescopes that can look for the atmospheric fingerprints of life on another world.”

There are over 2300 confirmed exoplanets, and many more candidates yet to be confirmed. Only a handful of them have been confirmed as being in the habitable zone around their host star. Of course, we don’t know if life can exist on other planets, even if they do reproduce the same kind of habitability that Earth has. We just have no way of knowing, yet.

That will change when instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope are able to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets and tell us something about any bio-markers that might be present.

But until then, and until we actually visit another world with a probe of some design, we need to use modelling like the type employed in this study, to get us closer to answering the question of life on other worlds.

Starshade Prepares To Image New Earths

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

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

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

Continue reading “Starshade Prepares To Image New Earths”

First Exoplanet Discovered Beyond the “Snow Line”

This artist's conception shows the Uranus-sized exoplanet Kepler-421b, which orbits an orange, type K star about 1,000 light-years from Earth. Kepler-421b is the transiting exoplanet with the longest known year, circling its star once every 704 days. It is located beyond the "snow line" – the dividing line between rocky and gaseous planets – and might have formed in place rather than migrating from a different orbit. David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Data from NASA’s crippled Kepler space telescope has unleashed a windfall of hot Jupiters — sizzling gas giants that circle their host star within days — and only a handful of Earth-like planets. A quick analysis might make it seem as though hot Jupiters are far more common than their smaller and more distant counterparts.

But in large surveys, astronomers have to be careful of the observational biases introduced into their data. Kepler, for example, mainly finds broiling furnace worlds close to their host stars. These are easier to spot than small exoplanets that take hundreds of days to transit.

New data, however, shows a transiting exoplanet, Kepler-421b, with the longest known year, clocking in at 704 days.

“Finding Kepler-421b was a stroke of luck,” said lead author David Kipping from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a press release. “The farther a planet is from its star, the less likely it is to transit the star from Earth’s point of view. It has to line up just right.”

Kepler-416b's folded light curve. Image Credit:
Kepler-421b’s folded light curve. Blue points are data from the first transit observed, and red points are the second transit.  Image Credit: Kipping et al.

Kepler-421b is roughly 4 times Earth’s girth and at least 60 times Earth’s mass. It circles its host star at about 1.2 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. But because its host star is much smaller than our Sun, this places its orbit beyond the snow line — the dividing line between rocky and gas planets.

On Earth, snow lines typically form at high elevations where falling temperatures turn atmospheric moisture to snow. Similarly, in planetary systems, snow lines are thought to form in the distant, colder reaches of the stars’ disk.

Depending on the distance from the star, however, other more exotic molecules — such as carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide — can freeze and turn to snow. This forms a frost on dust grains: the building blocks of planets and comets.

“The snow line is a crucial distance in planet formation theory. We think all gas giants must have formed beyond this distance,” said Kipping.

The fact that this gas giant is still beyond this distance, roughly 4 billion years after formation, suggests that it’s the first non-migrating gas giant in a transiting system found.

Astronomers currently think gas giants form by small rocky cores that glom together until the body is massive enough to accrete a gaseous envelope. As they grow, they migrate inward, sometimes moving as close to their host star as Mercury is to the Sun.

Kepler-421b may be the first exoplanet discovered to have formed in situ. But further observations, especially those of its atmosphere, will help shed light on its formation history. Unfortunately given its long year, it won’t transit again until February, 2016.

The research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

Kepler May Go Planet-Hunting Again! Infographic Shows How That Would Work

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

The planet-seeking Kepler space telescope had to stop its primary mission this summer after the failure of a second of its four reaction wheels, the devices that keep it pointing at a spot in the constellation Cygnus. NASA, however, has a backup plan. It’s considering stabilizing the spacecraft using the sun! You can see the details in this infographic.

The plan is still preliminary as it needs testing, and it also needs budgetary approval while NASA is fighting to keep other programs going at the funding levels the agency wants. But if it works, this is what NASA is proposing:

  • Keep the spacecraft oriented almost parallel to its orbit around the sun.
  • Gaze at a particular part of the sky for 83 days.
  • When the sun is close to coming into the telescope, move the spacecraft and do another 83-day observation period.
  • This would mean the spacecraft will have 4.5 “unique viewing periods” a year, NASA says.

“With the failure of a second reaction wheel, the spacecraft can no longer precisely point at the mission’s original field of view. The culprit is none other than our own sun,” NASA stated in a recent press release.

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

“The very body that provides Kepler with its energy needs also pushes the spacecraft around by the pressure exerted when the photons of sunlight strike the spacecraft. Without a third wheel to help counteract the solar pressure, the spacecraft’s ultra-precise pointing capability cannot be controlled in all directions.”

But this could be a way to counteract it. Mission managers put Kepler through a 30-minute test in October where the telescope looked at a spot in the constellation Sagittarius, which “produced an image quality within five percent of the primary mission image quality,” NASA stated. More testing is underway.

NASA should have more details at the end of this year as to whether to proceed to a 2014 Senior Review, which is held every two years to review current missions and decide which ones are still worth funding.

Source: NASA

On the Road to One Thousand Exoplanets

Planets everywhere. So where are all the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

A quiet milestone in modern astronomy may soon come to pass.  As of today, The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia lists a current tally of 998 extrasolar planets across 759 planetary systems. And although various tabulations differ slightly, very soon we should be living in an era where over one thousand exoplanets are known.

The history of exoplanet discovery has paralleled the course of the modern age of astronomy. It’s strange to think that a generation has already grown up over the past two decades in a world where knowledge of extrasolar planets is a given. I remember hearing of the promise of such detections growing up in the 1970’s, as astronomers put the odds at detection of planets beyond our solar system in our lifetime at around 50%.

A "Periodic Table of Exoplanets" Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.
A “Periodic Table of Exoplanets” Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.

Sure, there were plenty of false positives long before the first true discovery was made. 70 Ophiuchi was the site of many claims, starting with that of W.S. Jacob of the Madras Observatory way back in 1855. The high proper motion exhibited by Barnard’s Star at six light years distant was also highly scrutinized throughout the 20th century for claims of an unseen companion causing it to wobble. Ironically, Barnard’s Star still hasn’t made it into the pantheon of stars boasting planetary worlds.

A portrait of the HR8799 planetary system as imaged by the Hale Telescope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory).
A portrait of the HR8799 planetary system as imaged by the Hale Telescope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory).

But the first verified claim of an exoplanetary system came from a bizarre and unexpected source: a pulsar known as PSR B1257+12, which was discovered to host two worlds in 1992. This was followed by the first discovery of a world orbiting a main sequence star, 51 Pegasi in 1994. I still remember getting my hands on the latest issue of Astronomy magazine— we got our news, often months later, from actual paper magazines in those days —announcing “Planet Discovered!” on the cover.

Most methods and techniques used to discover exoplanets rely on either radial velocity or dips in the light output of a star from a transiting world. Both have their utility and drawbacks. Radial velocity looks for shifts in the star’s spectra as an unseen companion tugs it around a common center of mass. Though effective, it can only place a lower limit on the planet’s mass… and it’s biased towards worlds in short orbits. This is one reason that “hot Jupiters” have dominated the early exoplanet catalog: we hadn’t been looking for all that long.

Another method famously employed by surveys such as the Kepler space telescope is the transit detection method. This allows a much more refined estimate of a planet’s mass and orbit, assuming it transits the disk of its host star as seen from our Earthly vantage point in the first place, which most don’t.

A size comparision of exoplanets versus composition. (Credit: Marc Kuchner/NASA/GSFC).
A size comparision of exoplanets versus composition. (Credit: Marc Kuchner/NASA/GSFC).

Direct detection via occulting the host star is also coming of age. One of the first exoplanets directly imaged was Fomalhaut b, which can be seen changing positions in its orbit from 2004 to 2006.

Gravitational microlensing has also bared planetary fruit, with surveys such as MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics) and OGLE (the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment) catching brief lensing events as an unseen body passes in front of a background star. Distant free-ranging rogue planets can only be detected via this method.

More exotic techniques also exist, such as relativistic beaming (sounding like something out of Star Trek). Other methods include searches for tiny light variations as an illuminated planet orbits its host star, deformities caused by ellipsoidal variations as massive planets orbit a star, and infrared detections of circumstellar disks. We’re always amazed at the wealth of data that can be teased out of a few dim photons of light.

A scatter plot of exoplanet discoveries as of 2010 mass versus semi-major axis. Select exoplanets are labeled. A majority were detected via radial velocity (blue) and the transiting method (green). The remainder were detected by other methods (click here for a full discription). Graph in the Public Domain.
A scatter plot of exoplanet discoveries as of 2010 displaying mass versus semi-major axis. Select exoplanets are labeled. A majority were detected via radial velocity (blue) and the transiting method (green). The remainder were detected by other methods (click here for a full description). Graph in the Public Domain.

Universe Today has grown up with exoplanet science, from reporting on the hottest, fastest, and other notable “firsts”. A bizarre menagerie of worlds are now known, many of which defy the imagination of science fiction writers of yore. Want a world made of diamond, or one where it rains glass? There’s now an “exoplanet for that”.

Exoplanet news has almost gone from the incredible to the routine, as Tatooine-like worlds orbiting binary stars and systems with worlds in bizarre resonances are announced with increasing frequency.

Exoplanet surveys also have a capacity to peg down that key fp factor in the famous Drake equation, which asks us “what fraction of stars have planets”. It’s been long suspected that stars with planets are the rule rather than the exception, and we’re just now getting hard data to back that assertion up.

Missions, such as NASA’s Kepler space telescope and CNES/ESA CoRoT space telescope have swollen the ranks of extrasolar worlds. Kepler recently ended its career staring off in the direction of the constellations Cygnus, Hercules and Lyra and still has over 3,200 detections awaiting confirmation.

Exoplanet discoveries by year as of October 2013, color coded by method. Blue=radial velocity, Green=transiting, Yellow=timing, Red=direct imaging, Orange=microlensing
Exoplanet discoveries by year as of October 2013, color coded by method. Blue=radial velocity, Green=transiting, Yellow=timing, Red=direct imaging, Orange=microlensing

But is a given world Earthlike, or just Earth-sized? That’s the Holy Grail of modern exoplanet detection: an Earth-sized world orbiting in a star’s habitable zone. We’re cautious every time the latest “Earth-twin” makes its way into the headlines. From the perspective of an intergalactic astronomer, Venus in our own solar system might appear to fit the bill, though I wouldn’t bank the construction of an interstellar ark on it and head there just yet.

Exoplanet science has definitely come of age, allowing us to finally begin characterization of solar systems and give us some insight into solar system formation.

But perhaps what will be the most enduring legacy is what the discovery of extrasolar planets tells us about ourselves. How common (or rare) is the Earth? How typical is the story of our solar system? If the “first 1,000” are any indication, we strongly suspect that terrestrial planets come in enough distinct varieties or ”flavors” to make Baskin Robbins envious.

And the future of exoplanet science looks bright indeed. One proposed mission, known as the Fast INfrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer, or FINESSE, would target exoplanet atmospheres, if given the go ahead for a 2017 launch. Another proposal, known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, would search for microlensing events starting in 2023. A mission that scientists would love to fly that always seems to be shelved is known as the Terrestrial Planet Finder.

But the exoplanet hunting mission that’s closest to launch is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Unlike Kepler, which stares at a single patch of sky, TESS will be an all-sky survey looking at a half million stars.

We’re also just approaching an era where spectroscopy may allow us to detect exomoons and the chemistry taking place on these far off exoworlds. An example of an exciting discovery would be the detection of a chemical such as chlorophyll, a chemical that we know on Earth only exists as the result of life. But what a tantalizing discovery a blip on a graph would be, when what we humans really want to see is the vista of those far-flung alien forests!

Such is the exciting era we live in. Congratulations, humanity, on detecting 1,000 exoplanets… here’s to a thousand more!