In the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System. With over 4,000 confirmed exoplanets to date, the process has gradually shifted from discovery towards characterization. This consists of using refined techniques to determine just how likely a planet is to be habitable.
At the same time, astronomers continue to make discoveries regularly, some of which are right in our cosmic backyard. For instance, an international team of researchers recently detected two new Earth-like planets orbiting Teegarden’s Star, an M-type (red dwarf) star located just 12.5 light-years from the Solar System in the direction of the Aries constellation.
Welcome back to the latest installment in our series on Exoplanet-hunting methods. Today we begin with the very difficult, but very promising method known as Direct Imaging.
In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown by leaps and bounds. As of October 4th, 2018, a total of 3,869 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,887 planetary systems, with 638 systems hosting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to the limitations astronomers have been forced to contend with, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect methods.
So far, only a handful of planets have been discovered by being imaged as they orbited their stars (aka. Direct Imaging). While challenging compared to indirect methods, this method is the most promising when it comes to characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets. So far, 100 planets have been confirmed in 82 planetary systems using this method, and many more are expected to be found in the near future.
Welcome back to our series on Exoplanet-Hunting methods! Today, we look at another widely-used and popular method of exoplanet detection, known as the Radial Velocity (aka. Doppler Spectroscopy) Method.
The hunt for extra-solar planets sure has heated up in the past decade or so! Thanks to improvements made in instrumentation and methodology, the number of exoplanets discovered (as of December 1st, 2017) has reached 3,710 planets in 2,780 star systems, with 621 system boasting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to the limits astronomers are forced to contend with, the vast majority have been discovered using indirect methods.
When it comes to these indirect methods, one of the most popular and effective is the Radial Velocity Method – also known as Doppler Spectroscopy. This method relies on observing the spectra stars for signs of “wobble”, where the star is found to be moving towards and away from Earth. This movement is caused by the presence of planets, which exert a gravitational influence on their respective sun.
M-type stars, also known as “red dwarfs”, have become a popular target for exoplanet hunters of late. This is understandable given the sheer number of terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets that have been discovered orbiting around red dwarf stars in recent years. These discoveries include the closest exoplanet to our Solar System (Proxima b) and the seven planets discovered around TRAPPIST-1, three of which orbit within the star’s habitable zone.
The latest find comes from a team of international astronomers who discovered a planet around GJ 625, a red dwarf star located just 21 light years away from Earth. This terrestrial planet is roughly 2.82 times the mass of Earth (aka. a “super-Earth”) and orbits within the star’s habitable zone. Once again, news of this discovery is prompting questions about whether or not this world could indeed be habitable (and also inhabited).
The study which details their findings was recently accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, and appears online under the title “A super-Earth on the Inner Edge of the Habitable Zone of the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 625“. According to the study, the team used radial-velocity measurements of GJ 625 in order to determine the presence of a planet that has between two and three times the mass of Earth.
Using this instrument, the team collected high-resolution spectroscopic data of the GJ 625 system over the course of three years. Specifically, they measured small variations in the stars radial velocity, which are attributed to the gravitational pull of a planet. From a total of 151 spectra obtained, they were able to determine that the planet (GJ 625 b) was likely terrestrial and had a minimum mass of 2.82 ± 0.51 Earth masses.
Moreover, they obtained distance estimates that placed it roughly 0.078 AU from its star, and an orbital period estimate of 14.628 ± 0.013 days. At this distance, the planet’s orbit places it just within GJ 625’s habitable zone. Of course, this does not mean conclusively that the planet has conditions conducive to life on its surface, but it is an encouraging indication.
“As GJ 625 is a relatively cool star the planet is situated at the edge of its habitability zone, in which liquid water can exist on its surface. In fact, depending on the cloud cover of its atmosphere and on its rotation, it could potentially be habitable”.
This is not the first time that the HADES project detected an exoplanet around a red dwarf star. In fact, back in 2016, a team of international researchers used this project to discover 2 super-Earths orbiting GJ 3998, a red dwarf located about 58 ± 2.28 light years from Earth. Beyond HADES, this discovery is yet another in a long line of rocky exoplanets that have been discovered in the habitable zone of a nearby red dwarf star.
Such findings are very encouraging since red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the known Universe- accounting for an estimated 70% of stars in our galaxy alone. Combined with the fact that they can exist for up to 10 trillion years, red dwarf systems are considered a prime candidate in the search for habitable exoplanets.
But as with all other planets discovered around red dwarf stars, there are unresolved questions about how the star’s variability and stability could affect the planet. For starters, red dwarf stars are known to vary in brightness and periodically release gigantic flares. In addition, any planet close enough to be within the star’s habitable zone would likely be tidally-locked with it, meaning that one side would be exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.
As such, additional observations will need to be made of this exoplanet candidate using the time-tested transit method. According to Jonay Hernández – a professor from the University of La Laguna, a researcher with the IAC and one of the co-authors on the study – future studies using this method will not only be able to confirm the planet’s existence and characterize it, but also determine if there are any other planets in the system.
“In the future, new observing campaigns of photometric observations will be essential to try to detect the transit of this planet across its star, given its proximity to the Sun,” he said. “There is a possibility that there are more rocky planets around GJ 625 in orbits which are nearer to, or further away from the star, and within the habitability zone, which we will keep on combing”.
According to Rafael Rebolo – one of the study’s co-authors from the Univeristy of La Laguna, a research with the IAC, and a member of the CSIS – future surveys using the transit method will also allow astronomers to determine with a fair degree of certainty whether or not GJ 625 b has the all-important ingredient for habitability – i.e. an atmosphere:
“The detection of a transit will allow us to determine its radius and its density, and will allow us to characterize its atmosphere by the transmitted light observe using high resolution high stability spectrographs on the GTC or on telescopes of the next generation in the northern hemisphere, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)”.
But what is perhaps most exciting about this latest find is how it adds to the population of extra-solar planets within our cosmic neighborhood. Given their proximity, each of these planets represent a major opportunity for research. And as Dr. Mascareño told Universe Today via email:
“While we have already found more than 3600 extra-solar planets, the exoplanet population in our near neighborhood is still somewhat unknown. At 21 ly from the Sun, GJ 625 is one of the 100 nearest stars, and right now GJ 625 b is one of the 30 nearest exoplanets detected and the 6th nearest potentially habitable exoplanet.”
Once again, ongoing surveys of nearby star systems is providing plenty of potential targets in the search for life beyond our Solar System. And with both ground-based and space-based next-generation telescopes joining the search, we can expect to find many, many more candidates in the coming years. In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of GJ 625 b and its parent star:
Finding exoplanets is hard work. In addition to requiring seriously sophisticated instruments, it also takes teams of committed scientists; people willing to pour over volumes of data to find the evidence of distant worlds. Professor Kipping, an astronomer based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one such person.
Within the astronomical community, Kipping is best known for his work with exomoons. But his research also extends to the study and characterization of exoplanets, which he pursues with his colleagues at the Cool Worlds Laboratory at Columbia University. And what has interested him most in recent years is finding exoplanets around our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.
Kipping describes himself as a “modeler”, combining novel theoretical modeling with modern statistical data analysis techniques applied to observations. He is also the Principal Investigator (PI) of The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project and a fellow at the Harvard College Observatory. For the past few years, he and his team have been taking the hunt for exoplanets to the local stellar neighborhood.
The inspiration for this search goes back to 2012, when Kipping was at a conference and heard the news about a series of exoplanets being discovery around Kepler 42 (aka. KOI-961). Using data from the Kepler mission, a team from the California Institute of Technology discovered three exoplanets orbiting this red dwarf star, which is located about 126 light years from Earth.
At the time, Kipping recalled how the author of the study – Professor Philip Steven Muirhead, now an associate professor at the Institute for Astrophysical Research at Boston University – commented that this star system looked a lot like our nearest red dwarf stars – Barnard’s Star and Proxima Centauri.
In addition, Kepler 42’s planets were easy to spot, given that their proximity to the star meant that they completed an orbital period in about a day. Since they pass regularly in front of their star, the odds of catching sight of them using the Transit Method were good.
As Prof. Kipping told Universe Today via email, this was the “ah-ha moment” that would inspire him to look at Proxima Centauri to see if it too had a system of planets:
“We were inspired by the discovery of planets transiting KOI-961 by Phil Muirhead and his team using the Kepler data. The star is very similar to Proxima, a late M-dwarf harboring three sub-Earth sized planets very close to the star. It made me realize that if that system was around Proxima, the transit probability would be 10% and the star’s small size would lead to quite detectable signals.”
In essence, Kipping realized that if such a planetary system also existed around Proxima Centauri, a star with similar characteristics, then they would very easy to detect. After that, he and his team began attempting to book time with a space telescope. And by 2014-15, they had been given permission to use the Canadian Space Agency’s Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) satellite.
Roughly the same size as a suitcase, the MOST satellite weighs only 54 kg and is equipped with an ultra-high definition telescope that measures just 15 cm in diameter. It is the first Canadian scientific satellite to be placed in orbit in 33 years, and was the first space telescope to be entirely designed and built in Canada.
Despite its size, MOST is ten times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, Kipping and his team knew that a mission to look for transiting exoplanets around Proxima Centauri would be too high-risk for something like Hubble. In fact, the CSA initially rejected their applications for this same reason.
“MOST initially denied us because they wanted to look at Alpha Centauri following the announcement by Dumusque et al. of a planet there,” said Kipping. “So understandably Proxima, for which no planets were known at the time, was not as high priority as Alpha Cen. We never even tried for Hubble time, it would be a huge ask to stare HST at a single star for months on end with just a a 10% chance for success.”
By 2014 and 2015, they secured permission to use MOST and observed Proxima Centauri twice – in May of both years. From this, they acquired a month and half’s-worth of space-based photometry, which they are currently processing to look for transits. As Kipping explained, this was rather challenging, since Proxima Centauri is a very active star – subject to star flares.
“The star flares very frequently and prominently in our data,” he said. “Correcting for this effect has been one the major obstacles in our analysis. On the plus side, the rotational activity is fairly subdued. The other issue we have is that MOST orbits the Earth once every 100 minutes, so we get data gaps every time MOST goes behind the Earth.”
Their efforts to find exoplanets around Proxima Centauri are especially significant in light of the European Southern Observatory’s recent announcement about the discovery of a terrestrial exoplanet within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone (Proxima b). But compared to the ESO’s Pale Red Dot project, Kipping and his team were relying on different methods.
“Essentially, we seek planets which have the right alignment to transit (or eclipse) across the face of the star, whereas radial velocities look for the wobbling motion of a star in response to the gravitational influence of an orbiting planet. Transits are always less likely to succeed for a given star, because we require the alignment to be just right. However, the payoff is that we can learn way more about the planet, including things like it’s size, density, atmosphere and presence of moons and rings.”
In the coming months and years, Kipping and his team may be called upon to follow up on the success of the ESO’s discovery. Having detected Proxima b using the Radial Velocity method, it now lies to astronomers to confirm the existence of this planet using another detection method.
In addition, much can be learned about a planet through the Transit Method, which would be helpful considering all the things we still don’t know about Proxima b. This includes information about its atmosphere, which the Transit Method is often able to reveal through spectroscopic measurements.
Suffice it to say, Kipping and his colleagues are quite excited by the announcement of Proxima b. As he put it:
“This is perhaps the most important exoplanet discovery in the last decade. It would be bitterly disappointing if Proxima b does not transit though, a planet which is paradoxically so close yet so far in terms of our ability to learn more about it. For us, transits would not just be the icing on the cake, serving merely as a confirmation signal – rather, transits open the door to learning the intimate secrets of Proxima, changing Proxima b from a single, anonymous data point to a rich world where each month we would hear about new discoveries of her nature and character.”
This coming September, Kipping will be joining the faculty at Columbia University, where he will continue in his hunt for exoplanets. One can only hope that those he and his colleagues find are also within reach!