A new way to Discover Planets? Astronomers Detect an Exoplanet by Seeing its Trojan Belts

Artist view of a planet and protoplanetary disk around a young star. Credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

Although we have found thousands of exoplanets in recent years, we really only have three methods of finding them. The first is to observe a star dimming slightly as a planet passes in front of it (transit method). The second is to measure the wobble of a star as an orbiting planet gives it a gravitational tug (Doppler method). The third is to observe the exoplanet directly. Now a new study in the Astrophysical Journal Letters has a fourth method.

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Hot Stars Blast Away at gas Giants Until Only Their Rocky Cores Remain

Artist view of a Neptune-sized planet orbiting a blue A-type star. Credit: Steven Giacalone, UC Berkeley

In our solar system, we have two types of planets. Small, warm, rocky worlds populate the inner region, while the outer region has cold gas giants. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense. When the solar system was forming, the Sun’s light and heat must have pushed much of the gas toward the outer system, leaving heavier dust and rock to form the inner worlds. Giants could only grow in the cold, dark outer solar system. But we now know our solar system is more the exception than the rule. Many star systems have large gas planets that orbit close to their stars. These hot Jupiters and hot Neptunes are unlike anything in our solar system, and astronomers are keen to understand what they may be like.

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How Do Hot Jupiters Get So Close to Their Stars?

An illustration of a Hot Jupiter orbiting close to its star. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

In this age of exoplanet discovery, we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets of different types. The hot Jupiter is one of the most unusual types. There’s nothing like it in our Solar System.

Hot Jupiters are massive gas planets, and they attract a lot of attention because they’re so close to their stars and reach blistering temperatures. Their existence spawns a lot of questions about their formation and evolution. A new study is trying to answer some of those questions by determining hot Jupiters’ ages.

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Digging Through Kepler Data Turns Up a Near Twin of Jupiter

The exoplanet, K2-2016-BLG-0005Lb, is almost identical to Jupiter in terms of its mass and its distance from its sun was discovered using data obtained in 2016 by NASA's Kepler space telescope. The exoplanetary system is twice as distant as any seen previously by Kepler, which found over 2,700 confirmed planets before ceasing operations in 2018. Image Credit: Specht et al. 2022.

NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft was deactivated in November 2018, about ten years after it launched. The mission detected over 5,000 candidate exoplanets and 2,662 confirmed exoplanets using the transit method. But scientists are still working with all of Kepler’s data, hoping to uncover more planets in the observations.

A team of researchers have announced the discovery of one more planet in the Kepler data, and this one is nearly a twin of Jupiter.

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Hubble Has Been Watching This Planet Form for 13 Years

Researchers were able to directly image newly forming exoplanet AB Aurigae b over a 13-year span using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph (NICMOS). In the top right, Hubble’s NICMOS image captured in 2007 shows AB Aurigae b in a due south position compared to its host star, which is covered by the instrument’s coronagraph. The image captured in 2021 by STIS shows the protoplanet has moved in a counterclockwise motion over time. Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, Thayne Currie (Subaru Telescope, Eureka Scientific Inc.); Image Processing: Thayne Currie (Subaru Telescope, Eureka Scientific Inc.), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Hubble’s most remarkable feature might be its longevity. The Hubble has been operating for almost 32 years and has fed us a consistent diet of science—and eye candy—during that time. For 13 of its 32 years, it’s been checking in on a protoplanet forming in a young solar system about 530 light-years away.

Planet formation is always a messy process. But in this case, the planet’s formation is an “intense and violent process,” according to the authors of a new study.

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A Second Generation of Planets can Form Around a Dying Star

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005
An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005

When young stars coalesce out of a cloud of molecular hydrogen, a disk of leftover material called a protoplanetary disk surrounds them. This disk is where planets form, and astronomers are getting better at peering into those veiled environments and watching embryonic worlds take shape. But young stars aren’t the only stars with disks of raw material rotating around them.

Some old, dying stars also have disks. Can a second generation of planets form under those conditions?

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Rings in the Early Solar System Kept our Planet From Becoming a Super-Earth

To date, a total of 4,884 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,659 systems, with another 8,414 additional candidates awaiting confirmation. In the course of studying these new worlds, astronomers have noted something very interesting about the “rocky” planets. Since Earth is rocky and the only known planet where life can exist, astronomers are naturally curious about this particular type of planet. Interestingly, most of the rocky planets discovered so far have been many times the size and mass of Earth.

Of the 1,702 rocky planets confirmed to date, the majority (1,516) have been “Super-Earths,” while only 186 have been similar in size and mass to Earth. This raises the question: is Earth an outlier, or do we not have enough data yet to determine how common “Earth-like” planets are. According to new research by an international team led by Rice University, it may all have to do with protoplanetary rings of dust and gas in an early solar system.

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Even Really Massive Stars Seem to Have Planets

This artist’s impression shows a close up of the planet b Centauri b, which orbits a binary system with mass at least six times that of the Sun. This is the most massive and hottest planet-hosting star system found to date. The planet is ten times as massive as Jupiter and orbits the two-star system at 100 times the distance Jupiter orbits the Sun. Image: ESO/L. Calçada

Can planets form around massive, hot stars? Some astronomers think they can’t. According to the evidence, planets around stars exceeding three solar masses should be rare, or maybe even non-existent. But now astronomers have found one.

A team of researchers found a binary star that’s six times the mass of the Sun. And it hosts a planet that’s about ten times more massive than Jupiter.

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The Early Solar System Had a Gap Where the Asteroid Belt is Today

An MIT study suggests that a mysterious gap existed within the solar system’s protoplanetary disk around 4.567 billion years ago, and likely shaped the composition of the solar system’s planets. This image shows an artist’s interpretation of a protoplanetary disk. Image Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan

Wind the cosmic clock back a few billion years and our Solar System looked much different than it does today. About 4.5 billion years ago, the young Sun shone much like it does now, though it was a little smaller. Instead of being surrounded by planets, it was ensconced in a swirling disk of gas and dust. That disk is called a protoplanetary disk and it’s where the planets eventually formed.

There was a conspicuous gap in the early Solar System’s protoplanetary disk, between where Mars and Jupiter are now, and where the modern-day asteroid belt sits. What exactly caused the gap is a mystery, but astronomers think it’s a sign of the processes that governed planet formation.

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The Early Solar System was Messier and More Violent Than Previously Believed

This artwork shows a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Our conventional models of planet formation may have to be updated, according to a pair of new papers.

Accretion is the keyword in current planet formation theory. The idea is that the planets formed out of the solar nebula, the material left over after the Sun formed. They did this through accretion, where small particles accumulate into more massive objects. These massive boulder-sized objects, called planetesimals, continued to merge together into larger entities, sometimes through collisions. Eventually, through repeated mergers and collisions, the inner Solar System was populated by four rocky planets.

But the new research suggests that the collisions played out much differently than thought and that objects collided with each other several times, in a series of hit and runs, before merging. This research fills some stubborn holes in our current understanding.

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