The Closest Planet Ever Discovered Outside the Solar System Could be Habitable With a Dayside Ocean

In of August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our Solar System. In addition, they confirmed that this planet (Proxima b) orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if Proxima b could in fact be habitable.

Unfortunately, most of this research has not been very encouraging. For instance, many studies have indicated that Proxima b’s sun experiences too much flare activity for the planet to sustain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface.  However, in a new NASA-led study, a team of scientists has investigated various climate scenarios that indicate that Proxima b could still have enough water to support life.

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Proxima Centauri Just Released a Flare so Powerful it was Visible to the Unaided Eye. Planets There Would Get Scorched

Since its discovery was announced in August of 2016, Proxima b has been an endless source of wonder and the target of many scientific studies. In addition to being the closest extra-solar planet to our Solar System, this terrestrial planet also orbits within Proxima Centauri’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). As a result, scientists have naturally sought to determine if this planet could actually be home to extra-terrestial life.

Many of these studies have been focused on whether or not Proxima b could retain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface in light of the fact that it orbits an M-type (red dwarf) star. Unfortunately, many of these studies have revealed that this is not likely due to flare activity. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, Proxima Centauri released a superflare that was so powerful, it would have been lethal to any life as we know it.

The study, titled “The First Naked-Eye Superflare Detected from Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared online. The team was led by Howard Ward, a PhD candidate in physics and astronomy at the UNC Chapel Hill, with additional members from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Washington, the University of Colorado, the University of Barcelona and the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

Artist impression of a red dwarf star like Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun. New analysis of ALMA observations reveal that Proxima Centauri emitted a powerful flare that would have created inhospitable conditions for planets in that system. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry

As they indicate in their study, solar flare activity would be one of the greatest potential threats to planetary habitability in a system like Proxima Centauri. As they explain:

“[W]hile ozone in an Earth-like planet’s atmosphere can shield the planet from the intense UV flux associated with a single superflare, the atmospheric ozone recovery time after a superflare is on the order of years. A sufficiently high flare rate can therefore permanently prevent the formation of a protective ozone layer, leading to UV radiation levels on the surface which are beyond what some of the hardiest-known organisms can survive.”

In addition stellar flares, quiescent X-ray emissions and UV flux from a red dwarf star can would be capable of stripping planetary atmospheres over the course of several billion years. And while multiple studies have been conducted that have explored low- and moderate-energy flare events on Proxima, only one high-energy event has even been observed.

This occurred on March of 2016, when Proxima Centauri emitted a superflare that was so bright, it was visible to the naked eye. This flare was observed by the Evryscope, an array of telescopes – funded through the National Science Foundation‘s Advanced Technologies and Instrumentation (ATI) and Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) programs – that is pointed at every part of the accessible sky simultaneously and continuously.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As the team indicates in their study, the March 2016 superflare was the first to be observered from Proxima Centauri, and was rather powerful:

“In March 2016 the Evryscope detected the first-known Proxima superflare. The superflare had a bolometric energy of 10^33.5 erg, ~10× larger than any previously-detected flare from Proxima, and 30×larger than any optically measured Proxima flare. The event briefly increased Proxima’s visible-light emission by a factor of 38× averaged over the Evryscope’s 2-minute cadence, or ~68× at the cadence of the human eye. Although no M-dwarfs are usually visible to the naked-eye, Proxima briefly became a magnitude-6.8 star during this superflare, visible to dark-site naked-eye observers.”

The superflare coincided with the three-month Pale Red Dot campaign, which was responsible for first revealing the existence of Proxima b. While monitoring the star with the HARPS spectrograph – which is part of the 3.6 m telescope at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile – the campaign team also obtaining spectra on March 18th, 08:59 UT (just 27 minutes after the flare peaked at 08:32 UT).

The team also noted that over the last two years, the Evryscope has recorded 23 other large Proxima flares, ranging in energy from 10^30.6 erg to 10^32.4 erg. Coupled with rates of a single superflare detection, they predict that at least five superflares occur each year. They then combined this data with the high-resolution HARPS spectroscopy to constrain the superflare’s UV spectrum and any associated coronal mass ejections.

The Red Dots project is successor to the Pale Red Dot project, which discovered Proxima b last summer. Credit: ESO

The team then used the HARPS spectra and the Evryscope flare rates to create a model to determine what effects this star would have on a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. This included how long the planet’s protective ozone layer would be able to withstand the blasts, and what effect regular exposure to radiation would have on terrestrial organisms.

“[T]he repeated flaring is sufficient to reduce the ozone of an Earth-like atmosphere by 90% within five years. We estimate complete depletion occurs within several hundred kyr. The UV light produced by the Evryscope superflare therefore reached the surface with ~100× the intensity required to kill simple UV-hardy microorganisms, suggesting that life would struggle to survive in the areas of Proxima b exposed to these flares.”

Essentially, this and other studies have concluded that any planets orbiting Proxima Centauri would not be habitable for very long, and likely became lifeless balls of rock a long time ago. But beyond our closest neighboring star system, this study also has implications for other M-type star systems. As they explain, red dwarf stars are the most common in our galaxy – roughly 75% of the population – and two-thirds of these stars experience active flare activity.

As such, measuring the impact that superflares have on these worlds will be a necessary component to determining whether or not exoplanets found by future missions are habitable. Looking ahead, the team hopes to use the Evryscope to examine other star systems, particularly those that are targets for the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

“Beyond Proxima, Evryscope has already performed similar long-term high-cadence monitoring of every other Southern TESS planet-search target, and will therefore be able to measure the habitability impact of stellar activity for all Southern planetsearch-target M-dwarfs,” they write. “In conjunction with coronal-mass-ejection searches from long- wavelength radio arrays like the [Long Wavelength Array], the Evryscope will constrain the long-term atmospheric effects of this extreme stellar activity.”

For those who hoped that humanity might find evidence of extra-terrestrial life in their lifetimes, this latest study is certainly a letdown. It’s also disappointing considering that in addition to being the most common type of star in the Universe, some research indicates that red dwarf stars may be the most likely place to find terrestrial planets. However, even if two-thirds of these stars are active, that still leaves us with billions of possibilities.

It is also important to note that these studies help ensure that we can determine which exoplanets are potentially habitable with greater accuracy. In the end, that will be the most important factor when it comes time to decide which of these systems we might try to explore directly. And if this news has got you down, just remember the worlds of the immortal Carl Sagan:

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

Further Reading: arXiv

The New Earth-Sized Planet Hunting Telescope ExTrA is Now Online

Ever since the Kepler space telescope began discovering thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy, astronomers have been eagerly awaiting the day when next-generation missions are deployed. These include the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to take to space in 2019, but also the many ground-based observatories that are currently being constructed.

One of these is the Exoplanets in Transits and their Atmospheres (ExTrA) project, which is the latest addition to the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Using the Transit Method, this facility will rely on three 60-centimeter (23.6 in) telescopes to search for Earth-sized exoplanets around M-type (red dwarf) stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. This week, the facility began by collecting its first light.

The Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) consists of monitoring stars for periodic dips in brightness. These dips are caused by planets passing in front of the star (aka. transiting) relative to the observer. In the past, detecting planets around M-type stars using this method has been challenging since red dwarfs are the smallest and dimmest class of star in the known Universe and emit the majority of their light in the near-infrared band.

Artist’s impression of rocky exoplanets orbiting Gliese 832, a red dwarf star just 16 light-years from Earth. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

However, these stars have also proven to be treasure trove when it comes to rocky, Earth-like exoplanets. In recent years, rocky planets have been discovered around star’s like Proxima Centauri and Ross 128, while TRAPPIST-1 had a system of seven rocky planets. In addition, there have been studies that have indicated that potentially-habitable, rocky planets could be very common around red dwarf stars.

Unlike other facilities, the ExTrA project is well-suited to conduct surveys for planets around red dwrfs because of its location on the outskirts of the Atacama Desert in Chile. As Xavier Bonfils, the project’s lead researcher, explained:

La Silla was selected as the home of the telescopes because of the site’s excellent atmospheric conditions. The kind of light we are observing – near-infrared – is very easily absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, so we required the driest and darkest conditions possible. La Silla is a perfect match to our specifications.

In addition, the ExTrA facility will rely on a novel approach that involves combining optical photometry with spectroscopic information. This consists of its three telescopes collecting light from a target star and four companion stars for comparison. This light is then fed through optical fibers into a multi-object spectrograph in order to analyze it in many different wavelengths.

The ExTrA telescopes are sited at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO/Petr Horálek

This approach increases the level of achievable precision and helps mitigate the disruptive effect of Earth’s atmosphere, as well as the potential for error introduced by instruments and detectors. Beyond the goal of simply finding planets transiting in front of their red dwarf stars, the ExTrA telescopes will also study the planets it finds in order to determine their compositions and their atmospheres.

In short, it will help determine whether or not these planets could truly be habitable. As Jose-Manuel Almenara, a member of the ExTrA team, explained:

With ExTrA, we can also address some fundamental questions about planets in our galaxy. We hope to explore how common these planets are, the behaviour of multi-planet systems, and the sorts of environments that lead to their formation,

The potential to search for extra-solar planets around red dwarf stars is an immense opportunity for astronomers. Not only are they the most common star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of stars in our galaxy alone, they are also very long-lived. Whereas stars like our Sun have a lifespan of about 10 billion years, red dwarfs are capable of remaining in their main sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For these reasons, there are those who think that M-type stars are our best bet for finding habitable planets in the long run. At the same time, there are unresolved questions about whether or not planets that orbit red dwarf stars can stay habitable for long, owing to their variability and tendency to flare up. But with ExTrA and other next-generation instruments entering into service, astronomers may be able to address these burning questions.

As Bonfils excitedly put it:

With the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, we may be able to study the atmospheres of exoplanets found by ExTra to try to assess the viability of these worlds to support life as we know it. The study of exoplanets is bringing what was once science fiction into the world of science fact.

ExTrA is a French project funded by the European Research Council and the French Agence National de la Recherche and its telescopes will be operated remotely from Grenoble, France. Also, be sure to enjoy this video of the ExTrA going online, courtesy of the ESOcast:

Further Reading: ESO

How Long Can a Rocky World Withstand the Blasts From a Red Dwarf Star?

Red dwarf stars have become a major focal point for exoplanet studies lately, and for good reason. For starters, M-type (red dwarf) stars are the most common type in our Universe, accounting for 75% of stars in the Milky Way alone. In addition, in the past decade, numerous terrestrial (i.e rocky) exoplanets have been discovered orbiting red dwarf stars, and within their circumstellar habitable zones (“Goldilocks Zones”) to boot.

This has naturally prompted several studies to determine whether or not rocky planets can retain their atmospheres. The latest study comes from NASA, using data obtained by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter. Having studied Mars’ atmosphere for years to determine how and when it was stripped away, the MAVEN mission is well-suited when it comes to measuring the potential habitability of other planets.

The study was shared on Dec. 13th, 2017, at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Louisiana. In a presentation titled “Spanning Disciplines to Search for Life Beyond Earth“, a team of NASA scientists and researchers from the University of California-Riverside and the University of Colorado-Boulder explained how insights from the MAVEN mission could be applied to the habitability of rocky planets orbiting other stars.

Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC

Launched in November 18th, 2013, the MAVEN mission established orbit around Mars on September 22nd, 2014. The purpose of this mission has been to explore the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and its interactions with the Sun and solar wind for the sake of determining how and when Mars’ atmosphere went from being thicker and warmer in the past (and thus able to support liquid water on the surface) to thin and tenuous today.

Since November of 2014, MAVEN has been measuring Mars’ atmospheric loss using its suite of scientific instruments. From the data it has obtained, scientists have surmised that the majority of the planet’s atmosphere was lost to space over time due to a combination of chemical and physical processes. And in the past three years, the Sun’s activity has increased and decreased, giving MAVEN the opportunity to observe how Mars’ atmospheric loss has risen and fallen accordingly.

Because of this, David Brain – a professor at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the CU Boulder is also a MAVEN co-investigator – and his colleagues began to think about how these insights could be applied to a hypothetical Mars-like planet orbiting around an red dwarf star. These planets include Proxima b (the closest exoplanet to our Solar System) and the seven planet system of TRAPPIST-1.

As Brain he explained in a recent NASA press release:

“The MAVEN mission tells us that Mars lost substantial amounts of its atmosphere over time, changing the planet’s habitability. We can use Mars, a planet that we know a lot about, as a laboratory for studying rocky planets outside our solar system, which we don’t know much about yet.”

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

To determine if this hypothetical planet could retain its atmosphere over time, the researchers performed some preliminary calculations that assumed that this planet would be positioned near the outer edge of the star’s habitable zone (as Mars is). Since red dwarf’s are dimmer than our Sun, the planet would have to orbit much closer to the star – even closer than Mercury does to our Sun – to be within this zone.

They also considered how a higher proportion of the light emanating from red dwarf stars is in the ultraviolet wavelength. Combined with a close orbit, this means that the hypothetical planet would be bombarded with about 5 times more UV radiation the real Mars gets. This would also mean that the processes responsible for atmospheric loss would be increased for this planet.

Based on data obtained by MAVEN, Brain and colleagues were able to estimate how this increase in radiation would affect Mars’ own atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, they found that the planet’s atmosphere would lose 3 to 5 times as many charged particles through ion escape, while about 5 to 10 times more neutral particles would be lost through photochemical escape (where UV radiaion breaks apart molecules in the upper atmosphere).

Another form of atmospheric loss would also result, due to the fact that more UV radiation means that more charged particles would be created. This would result in a process called “sputtering”, where energetic particles are accelerated into the atmosphere and collide with other molecules, kicking some out into space and sending others crashing into neighboring particles.

To receive the same amount of starlight as Mars receives from our Sun, a planet orbiting an M-type red dwarf would have to be positioned much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Lastly, they considered how the hypothetical planet might experience about the same amount of thermal escape (aka. Jeans escape) as the real Mars. This process occurs only for lighter molecules such as hydrogen, which Mars loses at the top of its atmosphere through thermal escape. On the “exo-Mars”, however, thermal escape would increase only if the increase in UV radiation were to push more hydrogen into the upper atmosphere.

In conclusion, the researchers determined that orbiting at the edge of the habitable zone of a quiet M-type star (instead of our Sun) could shorten the habitable period for a Mars-like planet by a factor of about 5 to 20. For a more active M-type star, the habitable period could be cut by as much as 1,000 times. In addition, solar storm activity around a red dwarf, which is thousands of times more intense than with our Sun, would also be very limiting.

However, the study is based on how an exo-Mars would fair around and M-type star, which kind of stacks the odds against habitability in advance. When different planets are considered, which possess mitigating factors Mars does not, things become a bit more promising. For instance, a planet that is more geologically active than Mars would be able to replenish its atmosphere at a greater rate.

Other factors include increase mass, which would allow for the planet to hold onto more of its atmosphere, and the presence of a magnetic field to shield it from stellar wind. As Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado (who was not associated with this study), remarked:

“Habitability is one of the biggest topics in astronomy, and these estimates demonstrate one way to leverage what we know about Mars and the Sun to help determine the factors that control whether planets in other systems might be suitable for life.”

Multiple survey have revealed evidence of rocky planets orbiting a red dwarf stars, raising questions about their habitability. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

In the coming years, astronomers and exoplanet researchers hope to learn more about the planets orbiting nearby red dwarf stars. These efforts are expected to be helped immensely thanks to the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to conduct more detailed surveys of these star systems using its advanced infrared imaging capabilities.

These studies will allow scientists to place more accurate constraints on exoplanets that orbit red dwarf stars, which will allow for better estimates about their size, mass, and compositions – all of which are crucial to determining potential habitability.

Other panelists that took part in the presentations included Giada Arney and Katherine Garcia-Sage of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Stephen Kane of the University of California-Riverside. You can access the press conference materials by going to NASA Goddard Media Studios.

Further Reading: NASA, AGU

Water Worlds Don’t Stay Wet for Very Long

Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

When hunting for potentially habitable exoplanets, one of the most important things astronomers look for is whether or not exoplanet candidates orbit within their star’s habitable zone. This is necessary for liquid water to exist on a planet’s surface, which in turn is a prerequisite for life as we know it. However, in the course of discovering new exoplanets, scientists have become aware of an extreme case known as “water worlds“.

Water worlds are essentially planets that are up to 50% water in mass, resulting in surface oceans that could be hundreds of kilometers deep. According to a new study by a team of astrophysicists from Princeton, the University of Michigan and Harvard, water worlds may not be able to hang on to their water for very long. These findings could be of immense significance when it comes to the hunt for habitable planets in our neck of the cosmos.

This most recent study, titled “The Dehydration of Water Worlds via Atmospheric Losses“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by Chuanfei Dong from the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University, the team conducted computer simulations that took into account what kind of conditions water worlds would be subject to.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This study was motivated largely by the number of exoplanet discoveries have been made around low-mass, M-type (red dwarf) star systems in recent years. These planets have been found to be comparable in size to Earth – which indicated that they were likely terrestrial (i.e. rocky). In addition, many of these planets – such as Proxima b and three planets within the TRAPPIST-1 system – were found to be orbiting within the stars habitable zones.

However, subsequent studies indicated that Proxima b and other rocky planets orbiting red dwarf stars could in fact be water worlds. This was based on mass estimates obtained by astronomical surveys, and the built-in assumptions that such planets were rocky in nature and did not have massive atmospheres. At the same time, numerous studies have been produced that have cast doubt on whether or not these planets would be able to hold onto their water.

Basically, it all comes down to the type of star and the orbital parameters of the planets. While long-lived, red dwarf stars are known for being variable and unstable compared to our Sun, which results in periodic flares up that would strip a planet’s atmosphere over time. On top of that, planets orbiting within a red dwarf’s habitable zone would likely be tidally-locked, meaning one side of the planet would be constantly exposed to the star’s radiation.

Because of this, scientists are focused on determining just how well exoplanets in different types of star systems could hold onto their atmospheres. As Dr. Dong told Universe Today via email:

“It is fair to say that the presence of an atmosphere is perceived as one of the requirements for the habitability of a planet. Having said that, the concept of habitability is a complex one with myriad factors involved. Thus, an atmosphere by itself will not suffice to guarantee habitability, but it can be regarded as an important ingredient for a planet to be habitable.”

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To test whether or not a water world would be able to hold onto its atmosphere, the team conducted computer simulations that took into account a variety of possible scenarios. These included the effects of stellar magnetic fields, coronal mass ejections, and atmospheric ionization and ejection for various types of stars – including G-type stars (like our Sun) and M-type stars (like Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1).

With these effects accounted for, Dr. Dong and his colleagues derived a comprehensive model that simulated how long exoplanet atmospheres would last. As he explained it:

“We developed a new multi-fluid magnetohydrodynamic model. The model simulated both the ionosphere and magnetosphere as a whole. Due to the existence of the dipole magnetic field, the stellar wind cannot sweep away the atmosphere directly (like Mars due to the absence of a global dipole magnetic field), instead, the atmospheric ion loss was caused by the polar wind.

“The electrons are less massive than their parent ions, and as a result, are more easily accelerated up to and beyond the escape velocity of the planet. This charge separation between the escaping, low-mass electrons and significantly heavier, positively-charged ions sets up a polarization electric field. That electric field, in turn, acts to pull the positively charged ions along behind the escaping electrons, out of the atmosphere in the polar caps.”

Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

What they found was that their computer simulations were consistent with the current Earth-Sun system. However, in some extreme possibilities – such as exoplanets around M-type stars – the situation is very different and the escape rates could be one thousand times greater or more. The result means that even a water world, if it orbits an red dwarf star, could lose its atmosphere after about a gigayear (Gyr), one billion years.

Considering that life as we know it took around 4.5 billion years to evolve, one billion years is a relatively brief window. In fact, as Dr. Dong explained, these results indicate that planets that orbit M-type stars would be hard pressed to develop life:

“Our results indicate that the ocean planets (orbiting a Sun-like star) will retain their atmospheres much longer than the Gyr timescale as the ion escape rates are far too low, therefore, it allows a longer duration for life to originate on these planets and evolve in terms of complexity. In contrast, for exoplanets orbiting M-dwarfs, they could have their oceans depleted over the Gyr timescale due to the more intense particle and radiation environments that exoplanets experience in close-in habitable zones. If the atmosphere were to be depleted over the timescale less than Gyr, this could prove to be problematic for the origin of life (abiogenesis) on the planet.”

Once again, these results cast doubt on the potential habitability of red dwarf star systems. In the past, researchers have indicated that the longevity of red dwarf stars, which can remain in their main sequence for up to 10 trillion years or longer, make them the best candidate for finding habitable exoplanets. However, the stability of these stars and the way in which they are likely to strip planets of their atmospheres seems to indicate otherwise.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

Studies such as this one are therefore highly significant in that they help to address just how long a potentially habitable planet around a red dwarf star could remain potentially habitable. As Dr. Dong indicated:

“Given the importance of atmospheric loss on planetary habitability, there has been a great deal of interest in using telescopes such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to determine whether these planets have atmospheres and, if so, what their composition are like. It is expected that the JWST should be capable of characterizing these atmospheres (if present), but quantifying the escape rates accurately requires a much higher degree of precision and may not be feasible in the near-future.”

The study is also significant as far as our understanding of the Solar System and its evolution is concerned. At one time, scientists have ventured that both Earth and Venus may have been water worlds. How they made the transition from being very watery to what they are today – in the case of Venus, dry and hellish; and in the case of Earth, having multiple continents – is an all-important question.

In the future, more detailed surveys are anticipated that could help shed light on these competing theories. When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is deployed in Spring of 2018, it will use its powerful infrared capabilities to study planets around nearby red dwarfs, Proxima b being one of them. What we learn about this and other distant exoplanets will go a long way towards informing our understanding of how our own Solar System evolved as well.

Further Reading: CfA, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

New Study Claims that TRAPPIST-1 Could Also Have Gas Giants

In February of 2017, NASA scientists announced the existence of seven terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets within the TRAPPIST-1 star system. Since that time, the system has been the focal point of intense research to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable. At the same time, astronomers have been wondering if all of the system’s planets are actually accounted for.

For instance, could this system have gas giants lurking in its outer reaches, as many other systems with rocky planets (for instance, ours) do? That was the question that a team of scientists, led by researchers from the Carnegie Institute of Science, sought to address in a recent study. According to their findings, TRAPPIST-1 may be orbited by gas giants at a much-greater distance than its seven rocky planets.

The study, titled “Astrometric Constraints on the Masses of Long-Period Gas Giant Planets in the TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System“, recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal. As they indicate in their study, the team relied on follow-up observations made of TRAPPIST-1 over a period of five years (from 2011 to 2016) using the du Pont telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Using these observations, they sought to determine if TRAPPIST-1 could have previously-undetected gas giants orbiting within the outer reaches of the system. As Dr. Alan Boss – an astrophysicist and planetary scientist with the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and the lead author on the paper – explained in a Carnegie press statement:

“A number of other star systems that include Earth-sized planets and super-Earths are also home to at least one gas giant. So, asking whether these seven planets have gas giant siblings with longer-period orbits is an important question.”

For years, Boss has conducted an exoplanet-hunting survey with the co-authors of the study – Alycia J. Weinberger, Ian B. Thompson, et al. – known as the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search. This survey relies on the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search Camera (CAPSCam), an instrument on the du Pont telecope that searches for extrasolar planets using the astrometric method.

This indirect method of exoplanet-hunting determines the presence of planets around a star by measuring the wobble of this host star around the system’s center of mass (aka. its barycenter). Using CAPSCam, Boss and his colleagues relied on several years of observations of TRAPPIST-1 to determine the upper mass limits for any potential gas giants orbiting in the system.

From this, they concluded that planets that were up to 4.6 Jupiter Masses could orbit the star with a period of a year. In addition, they found that planets up to 1.6 Jupiter Masses could orbit the star with 5-year periods. In other words, it is possible that TRAPPIST-1 has some long-period gas giants orbiting its outer reaches, much in the same way that long-period gas giants exists beyond the orbit of Mars in the Solar System.

Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone. CreditL NASA/JPL

If true, the existence of these giant planets could resolve an ongoing debate about the formation of the Solar System’s gas giants. According to the most-widely accepted theory about the Solar System’s formation (i.e. Nebular Hypothesis), the Sun and planets were born of a nebula of gas and dust. After this cloud experienced gravitational collapse at the center, forming the Sun, the remaining dust and gas flattened out into a disk surrounding it.

Earth and the other terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) all formed closer to the Sun from the accretion of silicate minerals and metals. As for the gas giants, there are some competing theories as to how they formed. In one scenario, known as the Core Accretion theory, the gas giants also began accreting from solid materials (forming a solid core) which became large enough to attract an envelop of surrounding gas.

A competing explanation – known as the Disk Instability theory – claims that they formed when the disk of gas and dust took on a spiral arm formation (similar to a galaxy). These arms then began to increase in mass and density, forming clumps that rapidly coalesced to form baby gas giants. Using computational models, Boss and his colleagues considered both theories to see if gas giants could form around a low-mass star like TRAPPIST-1.

Whereas Core Accretion was not likely, the Disk Instability theory indicated that gas giants could form around TRAPPIST-1 and other low-mass red dwarf stars. As such, this study provides a theoretical framework for the existence of gas giants in red dwarf star systems that are already known to have rocky planets. This is certainly encouraging news for exoplanet-hunters given the spate of rocky planets have been found orbiting red dwarfs of late.

Aside from TRAPPIST-1, these include the closest exoplanet to the Solar System (Proxima b), as well as LHS 1140b, Gliese 581g, Gliese 625b, and Gliese 682c. But as Boss also noted, this research is still in its infancy, and much more research and discussion needs to take place before anything can be said conclusively. Luckily, studies such as this one are helping to open to the door to such studies and discussions.

“Gas giant planets found on long-period orbits around TRAPPIST-1 could challenge the core accretion theory, but not necessarily the disk instability theory,” said Boss. “There is a lot of space for further investigation between the longer-period orbits we studied here and the very short orbits of the seven known TRAPPIST-1 planets.”

Boss and his team also assert that continued observations with the CAPSCam and further refinements in its data analysis pipeline will either detect any long-period planets, or put an even tighter constraint on their upper mass limits. And of course, the deployment of next-generation infrared telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will assist in the hunt for gas giants around red dwarf stars.

Further Reading: Carnegie Institute of ScienceThe Astronomical Journal

Ultraviolet Light Could Point the Way To Life Throughout the Universe

Ultraviolet light is what you might call a controversial type of radiation. On the one hand, overexposure can lead to sunburn, an increased risk of skin cancer, and damage to a person’s eyesight and immune system. On the other hand, it also has some tremendous health benefits, which includes promoting stress relief and stimulating the body’s natural production of vitamin D, seratonin, and melanin.

And according to a new study from a team from Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), ultraviolet radiation may even have played a critical role in the emergence of life here on Earth. As such, determining how much UV radiation is produced by other types of stars could be one of the keys to finding evidence of life any planets that orbit them.

The study, titled “The Surface UV Environment on Planets Orbiting M Dwarfs: Implications for Prebiotic Chemistry and the Need for Experimental Follow-up“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Sukrit Ranjan, a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the CfA, the team focused on M-type (red dwarf) stars to determine if this class of star produces enough UV radiation to kick-start the biological processes necessary for life to emerge.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Recent studies have indicated that UV radiation may be necessary for the formation of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is necessary for all forms of life as we know it. And given the rate at which rocky planets have been discovered around red dwarf stars of late (exampled include Proxima b, LHS 1140b, and the seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system), how much UV radiation red dwarfs give off could be central to determining exoplanet habitability.

As Dr. Ranjan explained in a CfA press release:

“It would be like having a pile of wood and kindling and wanting to light a fire, but not having a match. Our research shows that the right amount of UV light might be one of the matches that gets life as we know it to ignite.”

For the sake of their study, the team created radiative transfer models of red dwarf stars. They then sought to determine if the UV environment on prebiotic Earth-analog planets which orbited them would be sufficient to stimulate the photoprocesses that would lead to the formation of RNA. From this, they calculated that planets orbiting M-dwarf stars would have access to 100–1000 times less bioactive UV radiation than a young Earth.

As a result, the chemistry that depends on UV light to turn chemical elements and prebiotic conditions into biological organisms would likely shut down. Alternately, the team estimated that even if this chemistry was able to proceed under a diminished level of UV radiation, it would operate at a much slower rate than it did on Earth billions of years ago.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As Robin Wordsworth – an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science and a co-author on the study – explained, this is not necessarily bad news as far as questions of habitability go. “It may be a matter of finding the sweet spot,” he said. “There needs to be enough ultraviolet light to trigger the formation of life, but not so much that it erodes and removes the planet’s atmosphere.”

Previous studies have shown that even calm red dwarfs experience dramatic flares that periodically bombard their planets with bursts UV energy. While this was considered to be something hazardous, which could strip orbiting planets of their atmospheres and irradiate life, it is possible that such flares could compensate for the lower levels of UV being steadily produced by the star.

This news also comes on the heels of a study that indicated how the outer planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system (including the three located within its habitable zone) might still have plenty of water of their surfaces. Here too, the key was UV radiation, where the team responsible for the study monitored the TRAPPIST-1 planets for signs of hydrogen loss from their atmospheres (a sign of photodissociation).

This research also calls to mind a recent study led by Professor Avi Loeb, the Chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, and also a member of the CfA. Titled, “Relative Likelihood for Life as a Function of Cosmic Time“, Loeb and his team concluded that red dwarf stars are the most likely to give rise to life because of their low mass and extreme longevity.

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Compared to higher-mass stars that have shorter life spans, red dwarf stars are likely to remain in their main sequence for as long as six to twelve trillion years. Hence, red dwarf stars would certainly be around long enough to accommodate even a vastly decelerated rate of organic evolution. In this respect, this latest study might even be considered a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox – Where are all the aliens? They’re still evolving!

But as Dimitar Sasselov – the Phillips Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, the Director of the Origins of Life Initiative and a co-author on the paper – indicated, there are still many unanswered questions:

“We still have a lot of work to do in the laboratory and elsewhere to determine how factors, including UV, play into the question of life. Also, we need to determine whether life can form at much lower UV levels than we experience here on Earth.”

As always, scientists are forced to work with a limited frame of reference when it comes to assessing the habitability of other planets. To our knowledge, life exists on only on planet (i.e. Earth), which naturally influences our understanding of where and under what conditions life can thrive. And despite ongoing research, the question of how life emerged on Earth is still something of a mystery.

If life should be found on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, or in extreme environments we thought were uninhabitable, it would suggest that life can emerge and evolve in conditions that are very different from those of Earth. In the coming years, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope are the Giant Magellan Telescope are expected to reveal more about distant stars and their systems of planets.

The payoff of this research is likely to include new insights into where life can emerge and the conditions under which it can thrive.

Further Reading: CfA, The Astrophysical Journal

Potentially Habitable, Tidally-Locked Exoplanets May be Very Common, say New Study

Studies of low-mass, ultra-cool and ultra-dim red dwarf stars have turned up a wealth of extra-solar planets lately. These include the discoveries of a rocky planet orbiting the closest star to the Solar System (Proxima b) and a seven-planet system just 40 light years away (TRAPPIST-1). In the past few years, astronomers have also detected candidates orbiting the stars Gliese 581, Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and others.

The majority of these planets have been terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature, and many were found to orbit within their star’s habitable zone (aka. “goldilocks zone”). However the question whether or not these planets are tidally-locked, where one face is constantly facing towards their star has been an ongoing one. And according to a new study from the University of Washington, tidally-locked planets may be more common than previously thought.

The study – which is available online under the title “Tidal Locking of Habitable Exoplanets” – was led by Rory Barnes, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington. Also a theorist with the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, his research is focused on the formation and evolution of planets that orbit in and around the “habitable zones” of low-mass stars.

Tidal locking results in the Moon rotating about its axis in about the same time it takes to orbit the Earth (left side). Credit: Wikipedia

For modern astronomers, tidal-locking is a well-understood phenomena. It occurs as a result of their being no net transfer of angular momentum between an astronomical body and the body it orbits. In other words, the orbiting body’s orbital period matches its rotational period, ensuring that the same side of this body is always facing towards the planet or star it orbits.

Consider Earth’s only satellite – the Moon. In addition to taking 27.32 days to orbit Earth, the Moon also takes 27.32 days to rotate once on its axis. This is why the Moon always presents the same “face” towards Earth, while the side that faces away is known as the “dark side”. Astronomers believe this became the case after a Mars-sized object (Theia) collided with Earth some 4.5 billion years ago.

Aside from throwing up debris that would eventually form the Moon, the impact is believed to have struck Earth at such an angle that it gave our planet an initial rotation period of 12 hours. In the past, researchers have used this 12-hour estimation of Earth’s rotation as a model for exoplanet behavior. However, prior to Barnes’ study, no systematic examinations had ever been conducted.

Looking to address this, Barnes chose to address the long-held assumption that only smaller, dimmer stars could host orbiting planets that were tidally locked. He also considered other possibilities, which included slower or faster initial rotation periods as well as variations in planet size and the eccentricity of their orbits. What he found was that previous studies had been rather limited and only made allowances for one outcome.

Tidally-locked, rocky planets are common around low-mass, M-type (red dwarf) stars, due to their close orbits. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

As he explained in a University of Washington press statement:

“Planetary formation models, however, suggest the initial rotation of a planet could be much larger than several hours, perhaps even several weeks. And so when you explore that range, what you find is that there’s a possibility for a lot more exoplanets to be tidally locked. For example, if Earth formed with no Moon and with an initial ‘day’ that was four days long, one model predicts Earth would be tidally locked to the sun by now.”

From this, he found that potentially-habitable planets that orbit very late M-type (red dwarf) stars are likely to attain highly-circular orbits about 1 billion years after their formation. Furthermore, he found that for the majority, their orbits would be synchronized with their rotation – aka. they would be tidally-locked with their star. These findings could have significant implications for the study of exoplanets formation and evolution, not to mention habitability.

In the past, tidally-locked planets were thought to have extremes climates, thus eliminating any possibility of life. As an example, the planet Mercury experiences a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, meaning it rotates three times on its axis for every two orbits it completes of the Sun. Because of this, a single day on Mercury lasts as long as 176 Earth days, and temperature range from 100 (-173 °C; -279 °F) to 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) between the day side and the night side.

For a tidally-locked planets that orbit close to their stars, it was believed this situation would be even worse. However, astronomers have since come to speculate that the presence of an atmosphere around these planets could redistribute temperature across their surfaces. Unlike Mercury, which has no atmosphere and experiences no wind, these planets could maintain temperatures that would be supportive to life.

Artist’s impression of a “Earth-like” planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

In any case, this study is one of many that is putting constraints on recent exoplanet discoveries. This is especially important given that the detection and study of extra-solar planets is still in its infancy, and limited to largely indirect methods. In other words, astronomers make estimates of a planet’s size, composition and whether or not it has an atmosphere based on transits and the influence these planets have on their stars.

In the coming years, next-generations missions like the James Web Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellites (TESS) are expected to improve this situation drastically. In addition to conducting more detailed observations on existing discoveries, they are also expected to uncover a wealth of more planets. If Barnes’ study is correct, the majority of those found will be tidally-locked, but that need not mean they are uninhabitable.

Prof. Barnes paper was accepted for publication by the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. The research was funded by a NASA grant through the Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

Further Reading: University of Washington, arXiv

 

Bad News For Proxima b: An Earth-Like Atmosphere Might Not Survive There

Back in of August of 2016, the existence of an Earth-like planet right next door to our Solar System was confirmed. To make matters even more exciting, it was confirmed that this planet orbits within its star’s habitable zone too. Since that time, astronomers and exoplanet-hunters have been busy trying to determine all they can about this rocky planet, known as Proxima b. Foremost on everyone’s mind has been just how likely it is to be habitable.

However, numerous studies have emerged since that time that indicate that Proxima b, given the fact that it orbits an M-type (red dwarf), would have a hard time supporting life. This was certainly the conclusion reached in a new study led by researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As they showed, a planet like Proxima b would not be able to retain an Earth-like atmosphere for very long.

Red dwarf stars are the most common in the Universe, accounting for an estimated 70% of stars in our galaxy alone. As such, astronomers are naturally interested in knowing just how likely they are at supporting habitable planets. And given the distance between our Solar System and Proxima Centauri – 4.246 light years – Proxima b is considered ideal for studying the habitability of red dwarf star systems.

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: Pale Red Dot

On top of all that, the fact that Proxima b is believed to be similar in size and composition to Earth makes it an especially appealing target for research. The study was led by Dr. Katherine Garcia-Sage of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. As she told Universe Today via email:

“So far, not many Earth-sized exoplanets have been found orbiting in the temperate zone of their star. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist – larger planets are found more often, because they are easier to detect – but Proxima b is of interest because it’s not only Earth-sized and at the right distance from its star, but it’s also orbiting the closest star to our Solar System.”

For the sake of determining the likelihood of Proxima b being habitable, the research team sought to address the chief concerns facing rocky planets that orbit red dwarf stars. These include the planet’s distance from their stars, the variability of red dwarfs, and the presence (or absence) of magnetic fields. Distance is of particular importance, since habitable zones (aka. temperate zones) around red dwarfs are much closer and tighter.

“Red dwarfs are cooler than our own Sun, so the temperate zone is closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun,” said Dr. Garcia-Sage. “But these stars may be very magnetically active, and being so close to a magnetically active star means that these planets are in a very different space environment than what the Earth experiences. At those distances from the star, the ultraviolet and x-ray radiation may be quite large. The stellar wind may be stronger. There could be stellar flares and energetic particles from the star that ionize and heat the upper atmosphere.”

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

In addition, red dwarf stars are known for being unstable and variable in nature when compared to our Sun. As such, planets orbiting in close proximity would have to contend with flare ups and intense solar wind, which could gradually strip away their atmospheres. This raises another important aspect of exoplanet habitability research, which is the presence of magnetic fields.

To put it simply, Earth’s atmosphere is protected by a magnetic field that is driven by a dynamo effect in its outer core. This “magnetosphere” has prevented solar wind from stripping our atmosphere away, thus giving life a chance to emerge and evolve. In contrast, Mars lost its magnetosphere roughly 4.2 billion years ago, which led to its atmosphere being depleted and its surface becoming the cold, desiccated place it is today.

To test Proxima b’s potential habitability and capacity to retain liquid surface water, the team therefore assumed the presence of an Earth-like atmosphere and a magnetic field around the planet. They then accounted for the enhanced radiation coming from Proxima b. This was provided by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), where researchers determined the ultraviolet and x-ray spectrum of Proxima Centauri for this project.

From all of this, they constructed models that began to calculate the rate of atmospheric loss, using Earth’s atmosphere as a template. As Dr. Garcia-Sage explained:

“At Earth, the upper atmosphere is ionized and heated by ultraviolet and x-ray radiation from the Sun. Some of these ions and electrons escape from the upper atmosphere at the north and south poles. We have a model that calculates how fast the upper atmosphere is lost through these processes (it’s not very fast at Earth)… We then used that radiation as the input for our model and calculated a range of possible escape rates for Proxima Centauri b, based on varying levels of magnetic activity.”

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

What they found was not very encouraging. In essence, Proxima b would not be able to retain an Earth-like atmosphere when subjected to Proxima Centauri’s intense radiation, even with the presence of a magnetic field. This means that unless Proxima b has had a very different kind of atmospheric history than Earth, it is most likely a lifeless ball of rock.

However, as Dr. Garcia-Sage put it, there are other factors to consider which their study simply can’t account for:

“We found that atmospheric losses are much stronger than they are at Earth, and the for high levels of magnetic activity that we expect at Proxima b, the escape rate was fast enough that an entire Earth-like atmosphere could be lost to space. That doesn’t take into account other things like volcanic activity or impacts with comets that might be able to replenish the atmosphere, but it does mean that when we’re trying to understand what processes shaped the atmosphere of Proxima b, we have to take into account the magnetic activity of the star. And understanding the atmosphere is an important part of understanding whether liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet and whether life could have evolved.”

So it’s not all bad news, but it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence either. Unless Proxima b is a volcanically-active planet and subject to a lot of cometary impacts, it is not likely be temperate, water-bearing world. Most likely, its climate will be analogous to Mars – cold, dry, and with water existing mostly in the form of ice. And as for indigenous life emerging there, that’s not too likely either.

These and other recent studies have painted a rather bleak picture about the habitability of red dwarf star systems. Given that these are the most common types of stars in the known Universe, the statistical likelihood of finding a habitable planet beyond our Solar System appears to be dropping. Not exactly good news at all for those hoping that life will be found out there within their lifetimes!

But it is important to remember that what we can say definitely at this point about extra-solar planets is limited. In the coming years and decades, next-generation missions – like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) –  are sure to paint a more detailed picture. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of stars in the Universe, even if most of them are extremely far away!

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Earth-Sized Planet Takes Just Four Hours to Orbit its Star

The Kepler space observatory has made some interesting finds since it began its mission back in March of 2009. Even after the mission suffered the loss of two reaction wheels, it has continued to make discoveries as part of its K2 mission. All told, the Kepler and K2 missions have detected a total of 5,106 planetary candidates, and confirmed the existence of 2,493 planets.

One of the latest finds made using Kepler is EPIC 228813918 b, a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet that orbits a red dwarf star some 264 to 355 light years from Earth. This discovery raises some interesting questions, as it is the second time that a planet with an ultra-short orbital period – it completes a single orbit in just 4 hours and 20 minutes – has been found orbiting a red dwarf star.

The study, which was recently published online, was conducted by an international team of scientists who hail from institutions ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC) to observatories and universities from all around the world.

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

As the team indicated in their study, the detection of this exoplanet was made thanks to data collected by numerous instruments. This included spectrographic data from the 8.2-m Subaru telescope and the 10-m Keck I telescope (both of which are located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii) and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

This was combined with speckle imaging from the 3.5-m WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, photometry from the NASA’s K2 mission, and archival information of the star that goes back over 60 years. After eliminating any other possible explanations – such as an eclipsing binary (EB) – they not only confirmed the orbital period of the planet, but also provided constrains on its mass and size. As they wrote:

“Using a combination of archival images, AO imaging, RV measurements, and light curve modelling, we show that no plausible eclipsing binary scenario can explain the K2 light curve, and thus confirm the planetary nature of the system. The planet, whose radius we determine to be 0.89 ± 0.09 [Earth radii], and which must have a iron mass fraction greater than 0.45, orbits a star of mass 0.463 ± 0.052 M and radius 0.442 ± 0.044 R.”
This orbital period – four hours and 20 minutes – is the second shortest of any exoplanet discovered to date, being just 4 minutes longer than that of KOI 1843.03, which also orbits an M-type (red dwarf) star. It is also the latest in a long line of recently-discovered exoplanets that complete a single orbit of their stars in less than a day. Planets belonging to this group are known as ultra-short-period (USP) planets, of which Kepler has found a total of 106.
Archival images of the star EPIC 228813918, demonstrating its proper motion over nearly six decades – from (i) 1954, (ii) 1992, and (iii) 2012. Credit: Smith et al.

However, what is perhaps most surprising about this find is just how massive it is. Though they didn’t measure the planet’s mass directly, their constraints indicate that the exoplanet has an upper mass limit of 0.7 Jupiter masses – which works out to over 222 Earth masses. And yet, the planet manages to pack this gas giant-like mass into a radius that is 0.80 to 0.98 times that of Earth.

The reason for this, they indicate, has to do with the planet’s apparent composition, which is particularly metal-rich:

“This leads to a constraint on the composition, assuming an iron core and a silicate mantle. We determine the minimum iron mass fraction to be 0.525 ± 0.075 (cf. 0.7 for KOI 1843.03), which is greater than that of Earth, Venus or Mars, but smaller than that of Mercury (approximately 0.38, 0.35, 0.26, and 0.68, respectively; Reynolds & Summers 1969).”

Ultimately, the discovery of this planet is significant for a number of reasons. On the one hand, the team indicated that the constraints their study placed on the planet’s composition could prove useful in helping to understand how our own Solar planets came to be.

“Discovering and characterizing extreme systems, such as USP planets like EPIC 228813918 b, is important as they offer constraints for planet formation theories,” they conclude. “Furthermore, they allow us to begin to constrain their interior structure – and potentially that of longer-period planets too, if they are shown to be a single population of objects.”

An artist’s depiction of extra-solar planets transiting an M-type (red dwarf) star. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

On the other hand, the study raises some interesting questions about USP planets – for instance, why the two shortest-period planets were both found orbiting red dwarf stars. A possible explanations, they claim, is that short-period planets could have longer lifetimes around M-dwarfs since their orbital decay would likely be much slower. However, they are quick to caution against making any tentative conclusions before more research is conducted.

In the future, the team hopes to conduct measurements of the planet’s mass using the radial velocity method. This would likely involve a next-generation high-resolution spectrograph, like the Infrared Doppler (IFD) instrument or the CARMENES instrument – which are currently being built for the Subaru Telescope and the Calar Alto Observatory (respectively) to assist in the hunt for exoplanets around red dwarf stars.

One thing is clear though. This latest find is just another indication that red dwarf stars are where exoplanet-hunters will need to be focusing their efforts in the coming years and decades. These low mass, ultra-cool and low-luminosity stars are where some of the most interesting and extreme finds are being made. And what we stand to learn by studying them promises to be most profound!

Further Reading: arXiv