250 Years of Planetary Detection in 60 Seconds

Early astronomers realized some of the “stars” in the sky were planets in our Solar System, and really, only then did we realize Earth is a planet too. Now, we’re finding planets around other stars, and thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, we’re able to find planets that are even smaller than Earth.

This great new graphic of the history of planetary detection was put together by Hugh Osborn, a PhD student at the University of Warwick, who works with data from the WASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and NGTS (Next Generation Transit Survey) telescope surveys to discover exoplanets. It starts with the first real “discovery’ of a planet — Uranus in 1781 by William and Caroline Herschel.

“The idea of this plot is to compare our own Solar System (with planets plotted in dark blue) against the newly-discovered extrasolar worlds,” wrote Osborn on his website. “Think of this plot as a projection of all 1873 worlds onto our own solar system, with the Sun (and all other stars) at the far left. As you move out to the right, the orbital period of the planets increases, and correspondingly (thanks to Kepler’s Third Law), so does the distance from the star. Moving upwards means the mass of the worlds increase, from Moon-sized at the base to 10,000 times that of Earth at the top (30 Jupiter Masses).”

You’ll notice a few “clusters” as time moves along. The circles in dark blue are the planets in our Solar System; light blue are planets found by radial velocity. Then in maroon are planets found by direct imaging, followed by orange for microlensing and green for transits.

The first batch of exoplanets were the massive ‘Hot Jupiters’, which were the first exoplanets found “simply because they are easiest to find,” using the radial velocity method. Then you’ll see clusters found by the other methods ending with the big batch found by Kepler.

“This clustering shows that there are more Earth and super-Earth sized planets than any other,” said Osborn. “Hopefully we can begin to probe below it’s limit and into the Earth-like regime, where thousands more worlds should await!”

On reddit, Osborn also provided great, short explanations of the various methods used to detect planets, which we’ll include below:

Radial Velocity

Planets orbit thanks to gravitational attraction from their star’s mass. But the mass of the planet also has an effect on the star – pulling it around in a tiny circle once every orbit. Astronomers can split the light from a star up into it’s colours, which have an atomic barcode of absorption lines in. These lines shift position as the star moves – the light is effectively compressed to bluer colours when moving towards and pulled to redder colours when moving away.

So, by measuring this to-and-fro (radial) velocity, and finding periodic signals, astronomers can detect the tug of distant exoplanets.

Direct Imaging

This is easier to get your head around – point a big telescope at a star and directly image a planet around it. This only work for the biggest young planets as these are warmest, so glow brightest in the infra-red (like a red-hot piece of Iron). To find the planet in the glare of it’s star, the starlight needs to be suppressed. This is done by either blocking it out with a starshade, or digitally combining the images in such a way to remove the central star, revealing new exoplanets.

Microlensing

Einstein’s general theory of relativity shows that mass bends space time. This means that light can be bent by massive objects, and even act like a lens. Occasionally a star with a planetary system passes in front of a distant star. The light from the distant star is bent and lensed by both the star and the planet, giving two sharp increases in brightness over a few days – one for the star and one for the planet. The amount of lensing gives the mass of the planets, and the time between the events gives us the distance from their star. More info

Transits

When a planet crosses in front of it’s star, it blocks out a small portion of sunlight depending on it’s size. We only see the star as a single point, but we can infer the presence of a planet from the dip in light. When this repeats, we get a period. This is how we have found more than 1000 of the current crop of ~1800 exoplanets!

Thanks to Hugh Osborn for sharing his expertise with Universe Today!

Astronomers Discover First Mulitiple-image Gravitationally-lensed Supernova

How about four supernovae for the price of one? Using the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Patrick Kelly of the University of California-Berkeley along with the GLASS (Grism Lens Amplified Survey from Space) and Hubble Frontier Fields teams, discovered a remote supernova lensed into four copies of itself by the powerful gravity of a foreground galaxy cluster. Dubbed SN Refsdal, the object was discovered in the rich galaxy cluster MACS J1149.6+2223 five billion light years from Earth in the constellation Leo. It’s the first multiply-lensed supernova every discovered and one of nature’s most exotic mirages.

The rich galaxy cluster MACS J1149+2223 gained notoriety in 2012 when the most distant galaxy when the most distant galaxy found to date was discovered there through gravitational lensing.
The lensed supernova was discovered far behind the rich galaxy cluster MACS J1149.6+2223. The cluster is one of the most massive known and gained notoriety in 2012 when astronomers harnessed its powerful lensing ability to uncover the most distant galaxy known at the time. Credit: NASA/ESA/M. Postman STScI/CLASH team

Gravitational lensing grew out of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity wherein he predicted massive objects would bend and warp the fabric of spacetime. The more massive the object, the more severe the bending. We can picture this by imagining a child standing on a trampoline, her weight pressing a dimple into the fabric. Replace the child with a 200-pound adult and the surface of the trampoline sags even more.

Massive objects like the sun and even the planets warp the fabric of space. Here a planet orbits the sun but does not fall in because of its sideways orbital motion.
Massive objects like the Sun and even the planets warp the fabric of space. Here a planet orbits the Sun but doesn’t fall in because of its sideways orbital motion.

Similarly, the massive Sun creates a deep, but invisible dimple in the fabric of spacetime. The planets feel this ‘curvature of space’ and literally roll toward the Sun. Only their sideways motion or angular momentum keeps them from falling straight into the solar inferno.

Curved space created by massive objects also bends light rays. Einstein predicted that light from a star passing near the Sun or other massive object would follow this invisible curved spacescape and be deflected from an otherwise straight path. In effect, the object acts as a lens, bending and refocusing the light from the distant source into either a brighter image or multiple and distorted images. Also known as the deflection of starlight, nowadays we call it gravitational lensing.

This illustration shows how gravitational lensing works. The gravity of a large galaxy cluster is so strong, it bends, brightens and distorts the light of distant galaxies behind it. The scale has been greatly exaggerated; in reality, the distant galaxy is much further away and much smaller. Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Calcada
This illustration shows how gravitational lensing works. The gravity of a large galaxy cluster is so strong, it bends, brightens and distorts the light of distant galaxies behind it. The scale has been greatly exaggerated; in reality, the distant galaxy is much further away and much smaller. Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Calcada


Simulation of distorted spacetime around a massive galaxy cluster over time

Turns out there are lots of these gravitational lenses out there in the form of massive clusters of galaxies. They contain regular matter as well as vast quantities of the still-mysterious dark matter that makes up 96% of the material stuff in the universe. Rich galaxy clusters act like telescopes – their enormous mass and powerful gravity magnify and intensify the light of galaxies billions of light years beyond, making visible what would otherwise never be seen.

Here we see a central slice of the MACS cluster. A massive elliptical galaxy is responsible for splitting SN Refsdal into four images. It also distorts and lenses the purple-toned spiral galaxy that's host to the supernova. Credit:
This cropped image shows the central slice of the MACS J1149 galaxy cluster. A massive elliptical galaxy lenses the light of SN Refsdal into four separate images. It also distorts the purplish spiral galaxy that’s host to the supernova. Credit: NASA/ESA/M. Postman STScI/CLASH team

Let’s return to SN Refsdal, named for Sjur Refsdal, a Norwegian astrophysicist who did early work in the field of gravitational lensing.  A massive elliptical galaxy in the MACS J1149 cluster “lenses” the  9.4 billion light year distant supernova and its host spiral galaxy from background obscurity into the limelight. The elliptical’s powerful gravity’s having done a fine job of distorting spacetime to bring the supernova into view also distorts the shape of the host galaxy and splits the supernova into four separate, similarly bright images. To create such neat symmetry, SN Refsdal must be precisely aligned behind the galaxy’s center.

What looks like a galaxy with five nuclei really has just one (at center) surrounded by a mirage of four images of a distant quasar. The galaxy lies 400 million light years away; the quasar about 8 billion. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble
What looks like a galaxy with five nuclei really has just one (at center) surrounded by a mirage of four images of a distant quasar. The galaxy lies 400 million light years away; the quasar about 8 billion. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

The scenario here bears a striking resemblance to Einstein’s Cross, a gravitationally lensed quasar, where the light of a remote quasar has been broken into four images arranged about the foreground lensing galaxy. The quasar images flicker or change in brightness over time as they’re microlensed by the passage of individual stars within the galaxy. Each star acts as a smaller lens within the main lens.

Color-composite image of lensing elliptical galaxy and distorted background  host spiral (top).The green circles show the locations of images S1–S4, while another quadruply imaged segment of the spiral arm is marked in  red. The bottom panels show two additional lensed images of the spiral host galaxy visible in the galaxy cluster field. Credit: S.L. Kelly et. all
Color-composite image of the lensing elliptical galaxy and distorted background host spiral (top). The green circles, S1-4, show the locations of the supernova images, while another quadruply imaged segment of the spiral arm is marked in red. The bottom panels show two additional lensed images of the spiral host galaxy visible in the galaxy cluster field.  Talk about a funhouse mirror! Credit: P.L. Kelly/GLASS/Hubble Frontier Fields

Detailed color images taken by the GLASS and Hubble Frontier Fields groups show the supernova’s host galaxy is also multiply-imaged by the galaxy cluster’s gravity. According to their recent paper, Kelly and team are still working to obtain spectra of  the supernova to determine if it resulted from the uncontrolled burning and explosion of a white dwarf star (Type Ia) or the cataclysmic collapse and rebound of a supergiant star that ran out of fuel (Type II).

The time light takes to travel to the Earth from each of the lensed images is different because each follows a slightly different path around the center of the lensing galaxy. Some paths are shorter, some longer. By timing the brightness variations between the individual images the team hopes to provide constraints not only on the distribution of bright matter vs. dark matter in the lensing galaxy and in the cluster but use that information to determine the expansion rate of the universe.

You can squeeze a lot from a cosmic mirage!

First Microlensing Detection of a Planet Circling a Brown Dwarf Candidate

When astronomers detect new exoplanets they typically do so using one of two techniques. First, there’s the famous transit technique, which looks for slight dips in light as a planet passes in front of its host star, and second is the radial velocity technique, which senses the motion of a star due to the gravitational pull of its planet.

But then there is gravitational microlensing, the chance magnification of the light from a distant star by the mass of a foreground star and its planets due to the distortion in the fabric of spacetime. While this technique sounds almost improbable, it is so accurate that every detection skips nominating planets as candidates and immediately verifies them as bona-fide worlds.

But without follow-up observations, the microlensing technique struggles with characterizing the incredibly faint host star. Now, a team of international astronomers led by PhD candidate Jennifer Yee from Ohio State University has detected the first microlensing signature, lovingly called MOA-2013-BLG-220Lb, that looks like a confirmed planet orbiting a candidate brown dwarf — an object so faint because it isn’t massive enough to kick-off nuclear fusion in its core.

Matter — no matter how great or small — curves the fabric of spacetime. It can ultimately acts like a lens by curving the background light around it and therefore magnifying the background source. In microlensing, the intervening matter is simply a faint star or perhaps a planetary system.

“As the ‘lens system’ passes in front of a distant, background star, the magnification of that background star changes as a function of time,” Yee told Universe Today. “By measuring the changing magnification of the background star, we can learn about the lensing star and perhaps whether or not it has a planet.”

In a planetary system, the light from the background star will be magnified when the foreground star passes in front of it. If there is a cirlcing planet, there will be an additional cusp in brightness (to a lesser extent but still a tell-tale detection nonetheless).

A sketch of a microlensing signature with a planet in the lens system. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / K. Sahu / STScI
A sketch of a microlensing signature with a planet in the lens system. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / K. Sahu / STScI

At the moment the planetary system transits in front of the background star (and for many years after) we can’t separate the two objects. While the light of the background star may be greatly magnified, its image is distorted because its light merges with the planetary system.

So the microlensing signature cannot tell astronomers anything about the lens system’s star. “It’s out of the ordinary,” Andrew Gould, Yee’s PhD advisor and coauthor on the paper, told Universe Today. “In other techniques people have definitely detected a star and they’re struggling to detect the planet. But microlensing is just the opposite. We detect the planet very clearly, but we can’t detect the host star.”

However, the microlensing signature does give away the lens system’s proper motion — the apparent change in distance over time — as it passes in front of the background star. MOA-2013-BLG-220Lb’s proper motion is extremely high, clocking in at 12.5 milliarcseconds (a distance on the sky that is 2400 times smaller than the size of the full moon) per year. This is roughly three times higher than average.

A high proper motion may be caused by an object that is very close by and is moving slowly or a very distant object moving rapidly. As most stars tend not to move at high speeds, the team assumes the object is relatively close, placing it at a distance of 6,000 light-years.

With a distance fixed, the team is also able to assume a mass for the object. It weighs in below the hydrogen-burning limit and is therefore considered the best brown dwarf candidate microlensing has detected.

“The double-edged sword of microlensing is that no light from the lens star is required,” Yee told Universe Today. “On the one hand, microlensing can find planets around dark or faint objects like brown dwarfs. The flip side is that it’s very difficult to characterize the lens star if its light is not detected.”

Astronomers will have to wait until 2021 to take a second look at the lens system. This time frame is how long we expect it to take before the candidate brown dwarf separates appreciably on the sky from the background star. Once it has done so astronomers will be able to verify whether or not the candidate is truly a brown dwarf.

The paper is available for download here.

Worlds Without Suns: Nomad Planets Could Number In The Quadrillions

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The concept of nomad planets has been featured before here on Universe Today, and for good reason. Not only is the idea of mysterious lone planets drifting sunless through interstellar space an intriguing one, but also the sheer potential quantity of such worlds is simply staggering. If some very well-respected scientists’ calculations are correct there are more nomad planets in our Milky Way galaxy than there are stars — a lot more. With estimates up to 100,000 nomad planets for every star in the galaxy, there could be literally quadrillions of wandering worlds out there, ranging in size from Pluto-sized to even larger than Jupiter.

That’s a lot of nomads. But where did they all come from?

Recently, The Kavli Foundation had a discussion with several scientists involved in nomad planet research. Roger D. Blandford, Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and Louis E. Strigari, Research Associate at KIPAC and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory talked about their findings and what sort of worlds these nomad planets might be, as well as how they may have formed.

One potential source for nomad planets is forceful ejection from solar systems.

“Most stars form in clusters, and around many stars there are protoplanetary disks of gas and dust in which planets form and then potentially get ejected in various ways,” said Strigari. “If these early-forming solar systems have a large number of planets down to the mass of Pluto, you can imagine that exchanges could be frequent.”

And the possibility of planetary formation outside of stellar disks is not entirely ruled out by the researchers — although they do impose a lower limit to the size of such worlds.

“Theoretical calculations say that probably the lowest-mass nomad planet that can form by that process is something around the mass of Jupiter,” said Strigari. “So we don’t expect that planets smaller than that are going to form independent of a developing solar system.”

“This is the big mystery that surrounds this new paper. How do these smaller nomad planets form?” Sasselov added.

Of course, without a sun of their own to supply heat and energy one might assume such worlds would be cold and inhospitable to life. But, as the researchers point out, that may not always be the case. A nomad planet’s internal heat could supply the necessary energy to fuel the emergence of life… or at least keep it going.

“If you imagine the Earth as it is today becoming a nomad planet… life on Earth is not going to cease,” said Sasselov. “That we know. It’s not even speculation at this point. …scientists already have identified a large number of microbes and even two types of nematodes that survive entirely on the heat that comes from inside the Earth.”

Researcher Roger Blandford also suggested that “small nomad planets could retain very dense, high-pressure ‘blankets’ around them. These could conceivably include molecular hydrogen atmospheres or possibly surface ice that would trap a lot of heat. They might be able to keep water liquid, which would be conducive to creating or sustaining life.”

And so with all these potentially life-sustaining planets knocking about the galaxy,  is it possible that they could have helped transport organisms from one solar system to another? It’s a concept called panspermia, and it’s been around since at least the 5th century BCE when the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first wrote about it. (We’ve written about it too, as recently as three weeks ago, and it’s still a much-debated topic.)

“In the 20th century, many eminent scientists have entertained the speculation that life propagated either in a directed, random or malicious way throughout the galaxy,” said Blandford. “One thing that I think modern astronomy might add to that is clear evidence that many galaxies collide and spray material out into intergalactic space. So life can propagate between galaxies too, in principle.

There could be quadrillions of nomad planets in our galaxy alone -- and they could even be ejected into intergalactic space. (Image: ESO/S.Brunier)

“And so it’s a very old speculation, but it’s a perfectly reasonable idea and one that is becoming more accessible to scientific investigation.”

Nomad planets may not even be limited to the confines of the Milky Way. Given enough of a push, they could be sent out of the galaxy entirely.

“Just a stellar or black hole encounter within the galaxy can, in principle, give a planet the escape velocity it needs to be ejected from the galaxy. If you look at galaxies at large, collisions between them leads a lot of material being cast out into intergalactic space,” Blandford said.

The discussion is a fascinating one and can be found in its entirety on The Kavli Foundation’s site here, and watch a recorded interview between Louis Strigari and journalist Bruce Lieberman here.

The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, is dedicated to the goals of advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work.

New Image Triples Your Galaxy Fun

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Here’s a brand new, magnificent look at the Leo Triplet — a group of interacting galaxies about 35 million light-years from Earth. This wide field of view comes courtesy of the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at the Paranal Observatory. It has a field of view twice as broad as the full Moon — which is unusual for a big telescope – and the FOV is wide enough to frame all three members of the group in a single picture. But there’s also a great new view of galaxies in the background, as the VST also brings to light large numbers of fainter and more distant galaxies, some through the wonders of microlensing.

Microlensing is a gravitational lensing phenomenon where the presence of a dim but massive object can be inferred from the effect of its gravity on light coming from a more distant star. If, due to a chance alignment, the dim object passes sufficiently close to our line of sight to the more distant star, its gravitational field bends the light coming from the background star. This can lead to a measurable increase in the background star’s brightness. As microlensing events rely on rare chance alignments, they are usually found by large surveys that can observe great numbers of potential background stars.

One of the science goals of the VST is to search for much fainter objects in the Milky Way, such as brown dwarf stars, planets, neutron stars and black holes, and microlensing is helpful in finding these elusive objects.

All three of the big, main galaxies seen here are spirals like our own Milky Way galaxy, even though this may not be immediately obvious in this image because their discs are tilted at different angles to our line of sight. NGC 3628, left, is seen edge-on, while the Messier objects M 65 (upper right) and M 66 (lower right), on the other hand, are inclined enough to make their spiral arms visible.

Get more information and see a larger version of this image at the ESO website.