Discovered: Two New Planets for Kapteyn’s Star

An artist's conception of the planets orbiting Kapteyn's Star (inset) and the stream of stars associated with an ancient galaxy merger. Credit: image courtesy of Victor Robles, James Bullock, and Miguel Rocha at University of California Irvine and Joel Primack at University of California Santa Cruz.

The exoplanet discoveries have been coming fast and furious this week, as astronomers announced a new set of curious worlds this past Monday at the ongoing American Astronomical Society’s 224th Meeting being held in Boston, Massachusetts.

Now, chalk up two more worlds for a famous red dwarf star in our own galactic neck of the woods. An international team of astronomers including five researchers from the Carnegie Institution announced the discovery this week of two exoplanets orbiting Kapteyn’s Star, about 13 light years distant. The discovery was made utilizing data from the HIRES spectrometer at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, as well as the Planet Finding Spectrometer at the Magellan/Las Campanas Observatory and the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla facility, both located in Chile.

The Carnegie Institution astronomers involved in the discovery were Pamela Arriagada, Ian Thompson, Jeff Crane, Steve Shectman, and Paul Butler. The planets were discerned using radial velocity measurements, a planet-hunting technique which looks for tiny periodic changes in the motion of a star caused by the gravitational tugging of an unseen companion.

“That we can make such precise measurements of such subtle effects is a real technological marvel,” said Jeff Crane of the Carnegie Observatories.

Kapteyn’s Star (pronounced Kapt-I-ne’s Star) was discovered by Dutch astronomer Jacobus Kapteyn during a photographic survey of the southern hemisphere sky in 1898. At the time, it had the highest proper motion of any star known at over 8” arc seconds a year — Kapteyn’s Star moves the diameter of a Full Moon across the sky every 225 years — and held this distinction until the discovery of Barnard’s Star in 1916. About a third the mass of our Sun, Kapteyn’s Star is an M-type red dwarf and is the closest halo star to our own solar system. Such stars are thought to be remnants of an ancient elliptical galaxy that was shredded and subsequently absorbed by our own Milky Way galaxy early on in its history. Its high relative velocity and retrograde orbit identify Kapteyn’s Star as a member of a remnant moving group of stars, the core of which may have been the glorious Omega Centauri star cluster.

The worlds of Kapteyn’s Star are proving to be curious in their own right as well.

“We were surprised to find planets orbiting Kapteyn’s Star,” said lead author Dr. Guillem Anglada-Escude, a former Carnegie post-doc now with the Queen Mary University at London. “Previous data showed some irregular motion, so we were looking for very short period planets when the new signals showed up loud and clear.”

The location of Kapteyn's Star in teh constellation Pictor. Created using Stellarium.
The location of Kapteyn’s Star in the constellation Pictor. Created using Stellarium.

It’s curious that nearby stars such as Kapteyn’s, Teegarden’s and Barnard’s star, though the site of many early controversial claims of exoplanets pre-1990’s, have never joined the ranks of known worlds which currently sits at 1,794 and counting until the discoveries of Kapteyn B and C. Kapteyn’s star is the 25th closest to our own and is located in the southern constellation Pictor. And if the name sounds familiar, that’s because it made our recent list of red dwarf stars for backyard telescopes. Shining at magnitude +8.9, Kapteyn’s star is visible from latitude 40 degrees north southward.

Kapteyn B and C are both suspected to be rocky super-Earths, at a minimum mass of 4.5 and 7 times that of Earth respectively. Kapteyn B orbits its primary once every 48.6 days at 0.168 A.U.s distant (about 40% of Mercury’s distance from our Sun) and Kapteyn C orbits once every 122 days at 0.3 A.U.s distant.

This is really intriguing, as Kapteyn B sits in the habitable zone of its host star. Though cooler than our Sun, the habitable zone of a red dwarf sits much closer in than what we enjoy in our own solar system. And although such worlds may have to contend with world-sterilizing flares, recent studies suggest that atmospheric convection coupled with tidal locking may allow for liquid water to exist on such worlds inside the “snow line”.

And add to this the fact that Kapteyn’s Star is estimated to be 11.5 billion years old, compared with the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years and our own Sun at 4.6 billion years. Miserly red dwarfs measure their future life spans in the trillions of years, far older than the present age of the universe.

A comparison of habitable zones of Sol-like versus Red dwarf stars. Credit: Chewie/Ignacio Javier under a Wikimedia Commons 3.0 license).
A comparison of habitable zones of Sol-like versus red dwarf stars. Credit: Chewie/Ignacio Javier under a Wikimedia Commons 3.0 license).

“Finding a stable planetary system with a potentially habitable planet orbiting one of the very nearest stars in the sky is mind blowing,” said second author and Carnegie postdoctoral researcher Pamela Arriagada. “This is one more piece of evidence that nearly all stars have planets, and that potentially habitable planets in our galaxy are as common as grains of sand on the beach.”

Of course, radial velocity measurements only give you lower mass constraints, as we don’t know the inclination of the orbits of the planets with respect to our line of sight. Still, this exciting discovery could potentially rank as the oldest habitable super-Earth yet discovered, and would make a great follow-up target for the direct imaging efforts or the TESS space telescope set to launch in 2017.

“It does make you wonder what kind of life could have evolved on those planets over such a long time,” added Dr Anglada-Escude. And certainly, the worlds of Kapteyn’s Star have had a much longer span of time for evolution to have taken hold than Earth… an exciting prospect, indeed!

-Read author Alastair Reynolds’ short science fiction piece Sad Kapteyn accompanying this week’s announcement.

Could There be 100 Billion Potentially Habitable Planets in the Galaxy?

A visualization of the “unseen” red dwarfs in the night sky. Credit: D. Aguilar & C. Pulliam (CfA)

As we’ve reported recently, the likelihood of findings habitable Earth-sized worlds just seems to keep getting better and better. But now the latest calculations from a new paper out this week are almost mind-bending. Using what the authors call a “very careful extrapolation” of the rate of small planets observed around M dwarf stars by the Kepler spacecraft, they estimate there could be upwards of 100 billion Earth-sized worlds in the habitable zones of M dwarf or red dwarf stars in our galaxy. And since the population of these stars themselves are estimated to be around 100 billion in the Milky Way, that’s – on average – an Earth-sized world for every red dwarf star in our galaxy.


And since our solar system is surrounded by red dwarfs – very cool, very dim stars not visible to the naked eye (less than a thousandth the brightness of the Sun) — these worlds could be close by, perhaps as close as 7 light-years away.

With the help of astronomer Darin Ragozzine, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida who works with the Kepler mission (see our Hangout interview with him last year), let’s take a look back at the recent findings that brought about this latest stunning projection.

Back in February, we reported on the findings from Courtney Dressing and Dave Charbonneau from the Center for Astrophysics that said about 6% of red dwarf stars could host Earth-size habitable planets. But since then, Dressing and Charbonneau realized they had a bug in their code and they have revised the frequency to 15%, not 6%. That more than doubles the estimates.

Then, just this week we reported how Ravi Kopparapu from at Penn State University and the Virtual Planetary Lab at University of Washington suggested that the habitable zone around planets should be redefined, based on new, more precise data that puts the habitable zones farther away from the stars than previously thought. Applying the new habitable zone to red dwarfs pushes the fraction of red dwarfs having habitable planets closer to 50%.

The graphic shows optimistic and conservative habitable zone boundaries around cool, low mass stars. The numbers indicate the names of known Kepler planet candidates. Yellow color represents candidates with less than 1.4 times Earth-radius. Green color represents planet candidates  between 1.4  and 2 Earth radius. Credit: Penn State.
The graphic shows optimistic and conservative habitable zone boundaries around cool, low mass stars. The numbers indicate the names of known Kepler planet candidates. Yellow color represents candidates with less than 1.4 times Earth-radius. Green color represents planet candidates between 1.4 and 2 Earth radius. Credit: Penn State.

But now, the new paper submitted to arXiv this week, “The Radius Distribution of Small Planets Around Cool Stars” by Tim Morton and Jonathan Swift (a grad student and postdoc from Caltech’s ExoLab) finds there is an additional correction to the numbers by Dressing and Charbonneau numbers.

“This is basically due to the fact that there are more small planets than we thought because Kepler isn’t yet sensitive to a large number that take longer to orbit,” Ragozzine told Universe Today. “Accounting for this effect and enhancing the calculation using some nice new statistical techniques, they estimate that the Dressing and Charbonneau numbers are actually too small by a factor of 2. This puts the number at 30% in the old habitable zone, and now up to about 100% in the new habitable zone.”

Now, it is important to point out a few things about this.

As Morton noted in an email to Universe Today, it’s important to realize that this is not yet a direct measurement of the habitable zone rate, “but it is what I would classify as a very careful extrapolation of the rate of small planets we have observed at shorter periods around M dwarfs.”

And as Ragozzine and Morton confirmed for us, all of these numbers are based on Kepler results only, and so far, while there confirmed planets around M dwarfs, there are none confirmed so far in the habitable zone.

“They do not use any results from Radial Velocity (HARPS, etc.),” Ragozzine said. “As such, these are all candidates and not planets. That is, the numbers are based on an assumption that most/all of the Kepler candidates are true planets. There are varying opinions about what the false positive rate would be, especially for this particular subset of stars, but there’s no question that the numbers may go down because some of these candidates turn out to be something else other than HZ Earth-size planets.”

Other caveats need to be considered, as well.

“Everyone needs to be careful about what “100%” means,” Ragozzine said. “It does not mean that every M dwarf has a HZ Earth-size planet. It means that, on average, there is 1 HZ-Earth size planet for every M dwarf. The difference comes from the fact that these small stars tend to have planets that come in packs of 3-5. If, on average, the number of planets per star is one, and the typical M star has 5 planets, then only 20% of M stars have planetary systems.”

The point is subtle but important. For example, if you want to plan new telescope missions to observe these planets, understanding their distribution is critical, Ragozzine said.

“I’m very interested in understanding what kinds of planetary systems host these planets as this opens a number of interesting scientific questions. Discerning their frequency and distribution are both valuable.”

Additionally, the new definition of the habitable zone from Kopparapu et al. makes a big difference.

As Ragozzine points out:

“This is really starting to point out that the definition of the HZ is based on mostly theoretical arguments that are hard to rigorously justify,” Ragozzine said. “For example, a recent paper came out showing that atmospheric pressure makes a big difference but there’s no way to estimate what the pressure will be on a distant world. (Even in the best cases, we can barely tell that the whole planet isn’t one giant puffy atmosphere.) Work by Kopparapu and others is clearly necessary and, from an astrobiological point of view, we have no choice but to use the best theory and assumptions available. Still, some of us in the field are starting to become really wary of the “H-word” (as Mike Brown calls it), wondering if it is just too speculative. Incidentally, I much, much prefer that these worlds be referred to as potentially habitable, since that’s really what we’re trying to say.”

However, Morten told Universe Today that he feels the biggest difference in their work was the careful extrapolation from short period planets to longer periods. “This is why we get occurrence rates for the smaller planets that are twice as large as Dressing or Kopparapu,” he said via email.

He also thinks the most interesting thing in their paper is not just the overall occurrence rate or the HZ occurrence rate even, but the fact that, for the first time, they’ve identified some interesting structure in the distribution of exoplanet radii.

“For example, we show that it appears that planets of roughly 1 Earth radius are actually the most common size of planet around these cool stars,” Morton said. “This makes some intuitive sense given the rocky bodies in our Solar System—there are two planets about the size of Earth, making it the most common size of small planet in our system too! Also, we find that there are lots and lots of planets around M dwarfs that are just beyond the detection threshold of current ground-based transiting surveys—this means that as more sensitive instruments and surveys are designed, we will just keep finding more and more of these exciting planets!”

But Ragozzine told us that even with all aforementioned caveats, the exciting thing is that the main gist of these new numbers probably won’t change much.

“No one is expecting that the answer will be different by more than a factor of a few – i.e., the true range is almost certainly between 30-300% and very likely between 70-130%,” Ragozzine said. “As the Kepler candidate list improves in quantity (due to new data), purity, and uniformity, the main goal will be to justify these statements and to significantly reduce that range.”

Another fun aspect is that this new work is being done by the young generation of astronomers, grad students and postdocs.

“I’m sure this group and others will continue producing great things… the exciting scientific results are just beginning!” Ragozzine said.

“Impossible” Binary Star Systems Found

Astronomers think about half of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy are, unlike our Sun, part of a binary system where two stars orbit each other. However, they’ve also thought there was a limit on how close the two stars could be without merging into one single, bigger star. But now a team of astronomers have discovered four pairs of stars in very tight orbits that were thought to be impossibly close. These newly discovered pairs orbit each other in less than 4 hours.

Over the last three decades, observations have shown a large population of stellar binaries, and none of them had an orbital period shorter than 5 hours. Most likely, the stars in these systems were formed close together and have been in orbit around each other from birth onwards.

A team of astronomers using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii made the first investigation of red dwarf binary systems. Red dwarfs can be up to ten times smaller and a thousand times less luminous than the Sun. Although they form the most common type of star in the Milky Way, red dwarfs do not show up in normal surveys because of their dimness in visible light.

But astronomers using UKIRT have been monitoring the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars, including thousands of red dwarfs, in near-infrared light, using its state-of-the-art Wide-Field Camera (WFC).

“To our complete surprise, we found several red dwarf binaries with orbital periods significantly shorter than the 5 hour cut-off found for Sun-like stars, something previously thought to be impossible,” said Bas Nefs from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, lead author of the paper which was published in journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “It means that we have to rethink how these close-in binaries form and evolve.”

Since stars shrink in size early in their lifetime, the fact that these very tight binaries exist means that their orbits must also have shrunk as well since their birth, otherwise the stars would have been in contact early on and have merged. However, it is not at all clear how these orbits could have shrunk by so much.

One possible scenario is that cool stars in binary systems are much more active and violent than previously thought.

The astronomers said it is possible that the magnetic field lines radiating out from the cool star companions get twisted and deformed as they spiral in towards each other, generating the extra activity through stellar wind, explosive flaring and star spots. Powerful magnetic activity could apply the brakes to these spinning stars, slowing them down so that they move closer together.

“The active nature of these stars and their apparently powerful magnetic fields has profound implications for the environments around red dwarfs throughout our Galaxy, ” said team member said David Pinfield from the University of Hertfordshire.

UKIRT has a 3.8 meter diameter mirror, and is the second largest dedicated infrared telescope in the world. It sits at an altitude of 4,200 m on the top of the volcano Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.

Read the team’s paper.

Lead image caption: This artist’s impression shows the tightest of the new record breaking binary systems. Two active M4 type red dwarfs orbit each other every 2.5 hours, as they continue to spiral inwards. Eventually they will coalesce into a single star. Credit: J. Pinfield.

Billions of Habitable Worlds Likely in the Milky Way

Artist’s impression of sunset on the super-Earth world Gliese 667 Cc. Credit: ESO


Could there be ‘tens of billions’ of habitable worlds in our own galaxy? That’s the results from a new study that searched for rocky planets in the habitable zones around red dwarf stars. An international team of astronomers using ESO’s HARPS spectrograph now estimates that there are tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way galaxy, with probably about one hundred in the Sun’s immediate neighborhood, less than 30 light years away.

“Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” said Xavier Bonfils, from IPAG, Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France, and the leader of the team. “Because red dwarfs are so common — there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way — this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”

This is the first direct estimate of the number of smaller, rocky planets around red dwarf stars. Add this to another recent finding which suggested that every star in our night sky has at least one planet circling it — which didn’t include red dwarf stars – and our galaxy could be teeming with worlds.

This team used the HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile to search for exoplanets orbiting the most common kind of star in the Milky Way — red dwarf stars (also known as M dwarfs). These stars are faint and cool compared to the Sun, but very common and long-lived, and therefore account for 80% of all the stars in the Milky Way.

The Milky Way over the ESO 3.6-metre Telescope, a photo submitted via Your ESO Pictures Flickr Group. Credit: ESO/A. Santerne

The HARPS team surveyed a carefully chosen sample of 102 red dwarf stars in the southern skies over a six-year period. A total of nine super-Earths (planets with masses between one and ten times that of Earth) were found, including two inside the habitable zones of Gliese 581 and Gliese 667 C respectively.

By combining all the data, including observations of stars that did not have planets, and looking at the fraction of existing planets that could be discovered, the team has been able to work out how common different sorts of planets are around red dwarfs. They find that the frequency of occurrence of super-Earths in the habitable zone is 41% with a range from 28% to 95%.

Bonfils and his team also found that rocky planets were far more common than massive gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Less than 12% of red dwarfs are expected to have giant planets (with masses between 100 and 1000 times that of the Earth).

However, the rocky worlds orbiting red dwarfs wouldn’t necessarily be a good place to spend your first exo-vacation – or for harboring life.

“The habitable zone around a red dwarf, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface, is much closer to the star than the Earth is to the Sun,” said Stéphane Udry from the Geneva Observatory and member of the team. “But red dwarfs are known to be subject to stellar eruptions or flares, which may bathe the planet in X-rays or ultraviolet radiation, and which may make life there less likely.”

New Exoplanet Discovered

A new exoplanet was discovered in this HARPS survey of red dwarfs: Gliese 667 Cc. This is the second planet in this triple star system and seems to be situated close to the center of the habitable zone. Although this planet is more than four times heavier than the Earth it is the closest twin to Earth found so far and almost certainly has the right conditions for the existence of liquid water on its surface. This is the second super-Earth planet inside the habitable zone of a red dwarf discovered during this HARPS survey, after Gliese 581d was announced in 2007 and confirmed in 2009.

“Now that we know that there are many super-Earths around nearby red dwarfs we need to identify more of them using both HARPS and future instruments,” said Xavier Delfosse, another member of the team. “Some of these planets are expected to pass in front of their parent star as they orbit — this will open up the exciting possibility of studying the planet’s atmosphere and searching for signs of life.”

Research papers: Bonfils et al. and Delfosse et al.

Source: ESO

Goldilocks And The Habitable Zone – The Increased Place In Space

Artist's impression of a planet orbiting red dwarf GJ1214.


It’s referred to as the “Goldilock’s Zone”, but this area in space isn’t meant for sleepy or hungry bears – it’s the relative area in which life can evolve and sustain. This habitable region has some fairly strict parameters, such as certain star types and rigid distance limits, but new research shows it could be considerably larger than estimated.

In a study done by Manoj Joshi and Robert Haberle, the team considered the relationship which occurs between the radiation for red dwarf stars and a possible planet’s reflective qualities. Known as albedo, this ability to “bounce back” light waves has a great deal to do with surface layers, such as ice and snow. Unlike our G-type Sun, the M-class red dwarf is much cooler and produces energy at longer wavelengths. This means a great deal of the radiation is absorbed – rather than reflected – turning the ice and snow into possible liquid water. And, as we know, water is considered to be a primary requirement for life.

“We knew that red dwarfs emit energy at a different wavelength, and we wanted to find out exactly what that might mean for the albedo of planets orbiting these stars.” explained Dr. Joshi from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, who carried out the research in collaboration with Robert Haberle from the NASA Ames Research Centre.

What makes this theory even more charming is that M-class stars make up a very substantial portion of our galaxy’s total population – meaning there’s even more possible Goldilock’s Zones yet to be discovered. Considering the lifespan of a red dwarf star also increases the chances – as well as the distance a planet would need to be located for these properties to happen.

“M-stars comprise 80% of main-sequence stars, and so their planetary systems provide the best chance for finding habitable planets, i.e.: those with surface liquid water. We have modelled the broadband albedo or reflectivity of water ice and snow for simulated planetary surfaces orbiting two observed red dwarf stars (or M-stars) using spectrally resolved data of the Earth’s cryosphere.” explains Joshi. “In addition, planets with significant ice and snow cover will have significantly higher surface temperatures for a given stellar flux if the spectral variation of cryospheric albedo is considered, which in turn implies that the outer edge of the habitable zone around M-stars may be 10-30% further away from the parent star than previously thought.”

Have we discovered planets around red dwarf stars? The answer is yes. In order to calculate the effects of radiation and albedo, the team chose to use similar M-class stars, Gliese 436 and GJ 1214, and applied it to a simulated planet with an average surface temperature of 200 K. Why that particular temperature? In this circumstance, it’s the temperature at which one bar of carbon-dioxide condenses – a rough indicator of the outer edge of a habitable zone. It is theorized that anything registering below this temperature is too cold to harbor life.

What the team found was high albedo planets register a higher surface temperature when exposed to longer wavelength radiation. This means ice and snow covered planets could exist much further away from a red dwarf parent star – as much as one third more the distance.

“Previous studies haven’t included such detailed calculations of the different albedo effects of ice and snow.” explains Joshi. “But we were a little surprised how big the effect was.”

Original Story Source: Planet Earth OnLine. Further Reading: Suppression of the Water Ice and Snow Albedo Feedback on Planets Orbiting Red Dwarf Stars and the Subsequent Widening of the Habitable Zone.