Three New Earth-sized Planets Found Just 40 Light-Years Away

Three more potentially Earthlike worlds have been discovered in our galactic backyard, announced online today by the European Southern Observatory. Researchers using the 60-cm TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile have identified three Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away.

The star, originally classified as 2MASS J23062928-0502285 but now known more conveniently as TRAPPIST-1, is a dim “ultracool” red dwarf star only .05% as bright as our Sun . Located in the constellation Aquarius, it’s now the 37th-farthest star known to host orbiting exoplanets.

The exoplanets were discovered via the transit method (TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) through which the light from a star is observed to dim slightly by planets passing in front of it from our point of view. This is the same method that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has used to find over 1,000 confirmed exoplanets.

Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.
Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.

As an ultracool dwarf TRAPPIST-1 is a very small and dim and isn’t easily visible from Earth, but it’s its very dimness that has allowed its planets to be discovered with existing technology. Their subtle silhouettes may have been lost in the glare of larger, brighter stars.

Follow-up measurements of the three exoplanets indicated that they are all approximately Earth-sized and have temperatures ranging from Earthlike to Venuslike (which is, admittedly, a fairly large range.) They orbit their host star very closely with periods measured in Earth days, not years.

“With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the research paper. “The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System.”

Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star's habitable zone. Credit: PHL.
Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star’s habitable zone. Credit: PHL.

Although these three new exoplanets are Earth-sized they do not yet classify as “potentially habitable,” at least by the standards of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) operated by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. The planets fall outside PHL’s required habitable zone; two are too close to the host star and one is too far away.

In addition there are certain factors that planets orbiting ultracool dwarfs would have to contend with in order to be friendly to life, not the least of which is the exposure to energetic outbursts from solar flares.

This does not guarantee that the exoplanets are completely uninhabitable, though; it’s entirely possible that there are regions on or within them where life could exist, not unlike Mars or some of the moons in our own Solar System.

The exoplanets are all likely tidally locked in their orbits, so even though the closest two are too hot on their star-facing side and too cold on the other, there may be regions along the east or west terminators that maintain a climate conducive to life.

“Now we have to investigate if they’re habitable,” said co-author Julien de Wit at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “We will investigate what kind of atmosphere they have, and then will search for biomarkers and signs of life.”

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

Discovering three planets orbiting such a small yet extremely common type of star hints that there are likely many, many more such worlds in our galaxy and the Universe as a whole.

“So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets,” said study co-author Emmanuel Jehin.

The team’s research was presented in a paper entitled “Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star” and will be published in Nature.

Source: ESO, PHL, and MIT

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Note: the original version of this article described 2MASS J23062928-0502285 (TRAPPIST-1) as a brown dwarf based on its classification on the Simbad archive. But at M8V it is “definitely a star,” according to co-author Julien de Wit in an email, although at the very low end of the red dwarf line. Corrections have been made above.

Why Do Red Dwarfs Live So Long?

While our Sun will only survive for about 5 billion more years, smaller, cooler red dwarfs can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity?

You might say our Sun will last a long time. And sure, another 5 billion years or so of main sequence existence does sound pretty long lived. But that’s nothing compared to the least massive stars out there, the red dwarfs.

These tiny stars can have just 1/12th the mass of the Sun, but instead of living for a paltry duration, they can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity? Is it Botox?

To understand why red dwarfs have such long lifespans, we’ll need to take a look at main sequence stars first, and see how they’re different. If you could peel back the Sun like a grapefruit, you’d see juicy layers inside.

In the core, immense pressure and temperature from the mass of all that starstuff bears down and fuses atoms of hydrogen into helium, releasing gamma radiation.

Outside the core is the radiative zone, not hot enough for fusion. Instead, photons of energy generated in the core are emitted and absorbed countless times, taking a random journey to the outermost layer of the star.

And outside the radiative zone is the convective zone, where superheated globs of hot plasma float up to the surface, where they release their heat into space.

Then they cool down enough to sink back through the Sun and pick up more heat. Over time, helium builds up in the core. Eventually, this core runs out of hydrogen and it dies. Even though the core is only a fraction of the total mass of hydrogen in the Sun, there’s no mechanism to mix it in.

A red dwarf is fundamentally different than a main sequence star like the Sun. Because it has less mass, it has a core, and a convective zone, but no radiative zone. This makes all the difference.

Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA
Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA

The convective zone connects directly to the core of the red dwarf, the helium byproduct created by fusion is spread throughout the star. This convection brings fresh hydrogen into the core of the star where it can continue the fusion process.

By perfectly using all its hydrogen, the lowest mass red dwarf could sip away at its hydrogen fuel for 10 trillion years.

One of the biggest surprises in modern astronomy is just how many of these low mass red dwarf worlds have planets. And some of the most Earthlike worlds ever seen have been found around red dwarf stars. Planets with roughly the mass of Earth, orbiting within their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water could be present.

One of the biggest problems with red dwarfs is that they can be extremely variable. For example, 40% of a red dwarf’s surface could be covered with sunspots, decreasing the amount of radiation it produces, changing the size of its habitable zone.

Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other red dwarfs produce powerful stellar flares that could scour a newly forming world of life. DG Canes Venaticorum recently generated a flare 10,000 times more powerful than anything ever seen from the Sun. Any life caught in the blast would have a very bad day.

Fortunately, red dwarfs only put out these powerful flares in the first billion years or so of their lives. After that, they settle down and provide a nice cozy environment for trillions of years. Long enough for life to prosper we hope.

In the distant future, some superintelligent species may figure out how to properly mix the hydrogen back into the Sun, removing the helium, if they do, they’ll add billions of years to the Sun’s life.

It seems like such a shame for the Sun to die with all that usable hydrogen sitting just a radiative zone away from fusion.

Have you got any ideas on how we could mix up the hydrogen in the Sun and remove the helium? Post your wild ideas in the comments!

Why Do Red Giants Expand?

We know that the Sun will last another 5 billion years and then expand us a red giant. What will actually make this process happen?


One of the handy things about the Universe, apart from the fact that it exists, is that it lets us see crazy different configurations of everything, including planets, stars and galaxies.

We see stars like our Sun and dramatically unlike our Sun. Tiny, cool red dwarf stars with a fraction of the mass of our own, sipping away at their hydrogen juice boxes for billions and even trillions of years. Stars with way more mass than our own, blasting out enormous amounts of radiation, only lasting a few million years before they detonate as supernovae.

There are ones younger than the Sun; just now clearing out the gas and dust in their solar nebula with intense ultraviolet radiation. Stars much older than ours, bloated up into enormous sizes, nearing the end of their lives before they fade into their golden years as white dwarfs.

The Sun is a main sequence star, converting hydrogen into helium at its core, like it’s been doing for more than 4.5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 or so. At the end of its life, it’s going to bloat up as a red giant, so large that it consumes Mercury and Venus, and maybe even Earth.

What’s the process going on inside the Sun that makes this happen? Let’s peel away the Sun and take a look at the core. After we’re done screaming about the burning burning hands, we’ll see that the Sun is this enormous sphere of hydrogen and helium, 1.4 million kilometers across, the actual business of fusion is happening down in the core, a region that’s a delicious bubblegum center a tiny 280,000 kilometers across.

The core is less than one percent of the entire volume, but because the density of hydrogen in the chewy center is 150 times more than liquid water, it accounts for a freakishly huge 35% of its mass.

It’s thanks to the mass of the entire star, 2 x 10^30 kg, bearing down on the core thanks to gravity. Down here in the core, temperatures are more than 15 million degrees Celsius. It’s the perfect spot for nuclear fusion picnic.

There are a few paths fusion can take, but the main one is where hydrogen atoms are mushed into helium. This process releases enough gamma radiation to make you a planet full of Hulks.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb
Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

While the Sun has been performing hydrogen fusion, all this helium has been piling up at its core, like nuclear waste. Terrifyingly, it’s still fuel, but our little Sun just doesn’t have the temperature or pressure at its core to be able to use it.

Eventually, the fusion at the core of the Sun shuts down, choked off by all this helium and in a last gasp of high pitched mickey mouse voice terror the helium core begins to contract and heat up. At this point, an amazing thing happens. It’s now hot enough for a layer of hydrogen just around the core to heat up and begin fusion again. The Sun now gets a second chance at life.

As this outer layer contains a bigger volume than the original core of the Sun, it heats up significantly, releasing far more energy. This increase in light pressure from the core pushes much harder against gravity, and expands the volume of the Sun.

Even this isn’t the end of the star’s life. Dammit, Harkness, just stay down. Helium continues to build up, and even this extra shell around the core isn’t hot and dense enough to support fusion. So the core dies again. The star begins to contract, the gravitational energy heats up again, allowing another shell of hydrogen to have the pressure and temperature for fusion, and then we’re back in business!

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Our Sun will likely go through this process multiple times, each phase taking a few years to complete as it expands and contracts, heats and cools. Our Sun becomes a variable star.

Eventually, we run out of usable hydrogen, but fortunately, it’s able to switch over to using helium as fuel, generating carbon and oxygen as byproducts. This doesn’t last long, and when it’s gone, the Sun gets swollen to hundreds of times its size, releasing thousands of times more energy.

This is when the Sun becomes that familiar red giant, gobbling up the tasty planets, including, quite possibly the Earth.The remaining atmosphere puffs out from the Sun, and drifts off into space creating a beautiful planetary nebula that future alien astronomers will enjoy for thousands of years. What’s left is a carbon oxygen core, a white dwarf.

The Sun is completely out of tricks to make fusion happen any more, and it’ll now cool down to the background temperature of the Universe. Our Sun will die in a dramatic way, billions of years from now when it bloats up 500 times its original volume.

What do you think future alien astronomers will call the planetary nebula left behind by the Sun? Give it a name in the comments below.

Amateur Astronomer Chases Down Barnard’s Star – You Can Too!

Tucked away in northern Ophiuchus and well-placed for observing from spring through fall is one of the most remarkable objects in the sky — Barnard’s Star.  A magnitude +9.5 red dwarf wouldn’t normally catch our attention were it not for the fact that it speeds across the sky faster than any other star known.

Incredibly, you can actually see its motion with a small telescope simply by dropping by once a year for 2-3 years and taking note of its position against the background stars. For one amateur astronomer, recording its wandering ways became a 9-year mission.

This map shows the sky facing southeast around 10:30 p.m. local time in early June. Barnard's Star is located 1° NW of the 4.8-magnitude star 66 Ophiuchi on the northern fringe of the loose open cluster Melotte 186. Source: Stellarium
This map shows the sky facing south-southwest around 9 o’clock local time in late September. Barnard’s Star is located 1° NW of the 4.8-magnitude star 66 Ophiuchi on the northern fringe of the loose open cluster Melotte 186. Use the more detailed map below to pinpoint the star’s location. Source: Stellarium

Located just 6 light years from Earth, making it the closest star beyond the Sun except for the Alpha Centauri system, Barnard’s Star dashes along at 10.3 arc seconds a year. OK, that doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a human lifetime it moves a quarter of a degree or half a Full Moon, a distance large enough to be easily perceived with the naked eye.

Barnard's Star would be an undistinguished red dwarf in Ophiuchus were it not for its rapid motion across the sky. It measures 1.9 times Jupiter's diameter and lies only 6 light-years from Eart
Barnard’s Star is a very low mass red dwarf star 1.9 times Jupiter’s diameter only 6 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. Credit: Wikipedia with additions by the author

This fleet-footed luminary was first spotted by the American astronomer E.E. Barnard in 1916. With a proper motion even greater than the triple star Alpha Centauri, we’ve since learned that the star’s speed is truly phenomenal; it zips along at 86 miles a second (139 km/sec) relative to the Sun. As the stellar dwarf moves north, it’s simultaneously headed in our direction.

Based on its high velocity and low “metal” content, Barnard’s Star is believed to be a member of the galactic bulge, a fastness of ancient stars formed early on in the Milky Way galaxy’s evolution. Metals in astronomy refer to elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, the fundamental building blocks of stars. That’s pretty much all that was around when the first generation of suns formed about 100 million years after the Big Bang.

Generally, the lower a star’s metal content, the more ancient it is as earlier generations only had the simplest elements on hand. More complex elements like lithium, carbon, oxygen and all the rest had to be cooked up the earliest stars’ interiors and then released in supernovae explosions where they later became incorporated in metal-rich stars like our Sun.

All this to say that Barnard’s Star is an interloper, a visitor from another realm of the galaxy here to take us on a journey across the years. It certainly got the attention of Lincoln, Nebraska amateur Rick Johnson, who first learned of the famous dwarf in 1957.

Close-up map showing Barnard's Star's northward march every 5 years from 2015 to 2030. Your guide star, 66 Ophiuchi, is at lower left. Stars are numbered with magnitudes and a 15? scale bar is at lower right. North is up. The line through the two 12th-magnitude stars will help you gauge Barnard's movement. Click for larger map.
Close-up map showing Barnard’s Star’s position every 5 years from 2015 to 2030. Your guide star, 66 Ophiuchi, also shown on the first map, is at lower left. Stars are numbered with magnitudes and a 15 arc minute scale bar is at lower right. North is up. The line through the two 12th-magnitude stars will help you gauge Barnard’s movement in the coming few years. Click for a larger map.

“One of the first things I imaged was Barnard’s Star on the off chance I could see its motion,” wrote Johnson, who used a cheap 400mm lens on a homemade tracking mount. “Taking it a couple months later didn’t show any obvious motion, though I thought I saw it move slightly.  So I took another image the following year and the motion was obvious.”

Many years later in 2005, Johnson moved to very dark skies, upgraded his equipment and purchased a good digital camera. Barnard’s Star continued to tug at his mind.

“Again one of my first thoughts was Barnard’s Star.  The idea of an animation however didn’t hit until later, so my exposure times were all over the map.  This made the first frames hard to match.” Later, he standardized the exposures and then assembled the individual images into a color animation.

This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems closest to the sun. The year when the distance to each system was determined is listed after the system's name. NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, found two of the four closest systems: the binary brown dwarf WISE 1049-5319 and the brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope helped pin down the location of the latter object. The closest system to the sun is a trio of stars that consists of Alpha Centauri, a close companion to it and Proxima Centauri. Credit: NASA / Penn State
This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems closest to the Sun along with the dates of discovery. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, found two of the four closest systems: the binary brown dwarf WISE 1049-5319 and the brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5. The closest system to the Sun is a trio of stars that consists of Alpha Centauri, a close companion to it and Proxima Centauri. Credit: NASA / Penn State

“Now the system is programed to take it each July,” he added. I’m automated, so its all automatic now.” Johnson said the Barnard video is his most popular of many he’s made over the years including short animations of the eye-catching Comet C/2006 M4 SWAN and Near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55.

With Johnson’s wonderful animation in your mind’s eye, I encourage you to use the maps provided to track down the star yourself the next clear night. To find it, first locate 66 Ophiuchi (mag. 4.8) just above the little triangle of 4th magnitude stars a short distance east or left of Beta Ophiuchi. Then use the detailed map to star hop ~1° to the northwest to Barnard’s Star.

Barnard's Star is one of our galaxy's ancient ones with age of somewhere between 7 and 12 billion years
Barnard’s Star, a red dwarf low in metals,  is very ancient with an age between 7 and 12 billion years. Like people, older stars slow down and Barnard’s is no exception with a rotation rate of 150 days. Heading in the Sun’s direction, the star will come closest to our Solar System around the year 11,800 A.D. at a distance of just 3.75 light years. Credit: NASA

It’s easily visible in a 3-inch or larger telescope. Use as high a magnification as conditions will allow to make a sketch of the star’s current position, showing it in relation to nearby field stars. Or take a photograph. Next summer, when you return to the field, sketch it again. If you’ve taken the time to accurately note the star’s position, you might see motion in just a year. If not, be patient and return the following year.

Most stars are too far away for us to detect motion either with the naked eye or telescope in our lifetime. Barnard’s presents a rare opportunity to witness the grand cycling of stars around the galaxy otherwise denied our short lives. Chase it.

When Will We Find Another Earth?

We hear about discoveries of exoplanets every day. So how long will it take us to find another planet like Earth?

Back in the olden days, astronomers could only guess if there were planets orbiting other stars.

These were the days when we had to wait at the bank to pay our bills, nobody carried computers in their pockets and those computers gave direct connections to everyone else’s pockets because pocket connectivity is highly important, school was uphill both ways, the number 6 was brand new, we recorded images on thin sheets of transparent plastic, 5 bees were worth a quarter and I had an onion tied to my belt, as was the style at the time.

With the discovery of a mega Jupiter-sized world orbiting the star 51 Pegasi in 1995, the floodgates opened up. In the years that followed, dozens more planets were discovered. Then hundreds, and now, we know about thousands orbiting other stars.

The bad news is we can’t get to any of them. The good news is most of these worlds suck. You don’t want any part of them. For starters their wifi is terrible.

Consider Kepler-70b. This world orbits its star 4 times in a 24 hour period. This means it’s super close, and a great place to really quickly win all the human torch cosplay competitions. The surface temperature is a completely unreasonable 7200 Kelvin, hotter than the surface temperature of the Sun.

There’s the planets orbiting pulsar PSR B1257+12, a millisecond pulsar in the constellation of Virgo. As they whip around their exotic host, they’re bathed in intense radiation. Which is generally considered bad for creatures who need functioning organs.

Perhaps HD 106906 b, orbiting its star 650 times more distantly than we orbit the Sun. You’d spend every second of your short life on that planet inventing new words for cold. And then you’d die. Cold.

Imagine a world that orbits a star like our Sun. A world made of about an Earth’s worth of rocky material that you could stand on, at just the right distance from its star that water can exist as a liquid.

This is what astronomers search for, the tri-wizard cup of extrasolar planetary research. Earth 2? Terra Nova? The Gaia part le deux.

Here’s the exciting part. Astronomers have found each of these characteristics in a planet, but never all together. They’ve found plenty of stars similar to our Sun, with planets orbiting them. In fact, the star HD 10180 is incredibly similar to the Sun, and astronomers have discovered 9 planets orbiting it so far. Which does have a familiar ring to it. No word so far on which ones are about to be demoted to dwarf planets.

Sizes and temperatures of Kepler discoveries compared to Earth and Jupiter
Sizes and temperatures of Kepler discoveries compared to Earth and Jupiter

They’ve found planets roughly the same mass as the Earth. Kepler-89, with 98% the mass of the Earth. So close! Sadly, it’s way too close to its parent hydrogen furnace to be habitable.

They’ve found planets in the habitable zone. Here on Earth, the global average temperature is -18 degrees C. Sounds cold, but the wintery nights in Antarctica absolutely wreck our GPA.

The closest analog discovered is Kepler-22b, with a global average temperature of -11C. So, it should feel downright balmy. Except, it’s about 2.4 times bigger than Earth and orbits a nasty red dwarf star.

Astronomers have even matched up two criteria at the same time. Earth-sized world orbiting around a Sun-like star, but it’s hellishly hot. Wrong flavor star but with the right temperature and size, it’s a veritable tic tac toe board of near wins.

So far, there hasn’t been a single extrasolar planet discovered that meets all three criteria. An Earth-sized world, orbiting a Sun-like star inside the habitable zone where liquid water could be present.

Astronomers were hoping that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft would have been the first to discover Earth 2.0. It had already turned up thousands of planets, including many of the ones I’ve already mentioned.

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sadly, just a few years into the mission, it lost too many reaction wheels, which allow the spacecraft to change direction. It wasn’t able to make enough observations to help confirm a true Earth 2.0. Kepler is still searching for planets, but with a reduced ability to point, it’s only looking at red dwarf stars.

Don’t worry, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will launch in 2017, and will survey a region of the sky 400 times larger than Kepler did. It should turn up thousands of planets, Earth-sized and larger.

Once we actually find New Terra, things get really interesting. Astronomers will search those planets for life. I know it sounds almost impossible to see life from this distance, but astronomers know that if they can analyze the atmosphere of these worlds, they can detect life flourishing there.

They might even be able to detect the pollution from their alien cars and heavy industry, contributing to their CO2 levels, and learn we’re not so different after all. Even if they’re icky bug people.

At the time I’m recording this video, no analog Earth planet has been discovered so far. But it’s just a matter of time. In the next few decades astronomers are going to find that first Earth 2.0, and then dozens, then hundreds, and even figure out which ones have life on them.

It’s a great time to be alive. Place your bets. Predict the date astronomers announce that we’ll find Earth 2.0. Put your guess into the comments below.

What is the Smallest Star?

We’ve talked about the biggest stars, but what about the smallest stars? What’s the smallest star you can see with your own eyes, and how small can they get?

Space and astronomy is always flaunting its size issues. Biggest star, hugest nebula, prettiest most talented massive galaxy, most infinite universe, and which comet came out on top in the bikini category. Blah blah blah.

In an effort to balance the scales a little we’re going look at the other end of the spectrum. Today we’re talking small stars. First, I’m going to get the Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis joke out of the way, so we can start talking about adorable little teeny tiny fusion factories.

We get big stars when we’ve got many times the mass of the Sun’s worth of hydrogen in one spot. Unsurprisingly, to get smaller stars we’ll need less hydrogen, but there’s a line we can’t cross where there’s so little, that it won’t generate the temperature and pressure at its core to ignite solar fusion. Then it’s a blob, it’s a mess. It’s clean-up in aisle Andromeda. It’s who didn’t put the lid back on the jar marked H.

So how small can stars get? And what’s the smallest star we know about? In the traditional sense, a star is an object that has enough mass and pressure in its core that it can ignite fusion, crushing atoms of hydrogen into helium.

Fusion is exothermic, releasing energy. It’s this energy that counteracts the force of gravity pulling everything inward. That gives you the size of the star and keeps it from collapsing in on itself.

By some random coincidence and fluke of nature our Sun is exactly 1 solar mass. Actually, that’s not true at all, our shame is that we use our Sun as the measuring stick for other stars. This might be the root of this size business. We’re in an endless star measuring contest, with whose is the most massive and whose has the largest circumference?

So, as it turns out, you can still have fusion reactions within a star if you get all the way down to 7.5% of a solar mass. This is the version you know as a red dwarf. We haven’t had a chance to measure many red dwarf stars, but the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, has about 12.3% the mass of the Sun and measures only 200,000 kilometers across. In other words, the smallest possible red dwarf would only be about 50% larger than Jupiter.

There is an important distinction, this red dwarf star would have about EIGHTY times the mass of Jupiter. I know that sounds crazy, but when you pile on more hydrogen, it doesn’t make the star that much bigger. It only makes it denser as the gravity pulls the star together more and more.

At the time I’m recording this video, this is smallest known star at 9% the mass of the Sun, just a smidge over the smallest theoretical size.

X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra
X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra

Proxima Centauri is about 12% of a solar mass, and the closest star to Earth, after the Sun. But it’s much too dim to be seen without a telescope. In fact, no red dwarfs are visible with the unaided eye. The smallest star you can see is 61 Cygni, a binary pair with one star getting only 66% the size of the Sun. It’s only 11.4 light years away, and you can just barely see it in dark skies. After that it’s Spock’s home, Epsilon Eridani, with 74% the size of the Sun, then Alpha Centauri B with 87%, and then the Sun. So, here’s your new nerd party fact. The Sun is the 4th smallest star you can see with your own eyes. All the other stars you can see are much bigger than the Sun. They’re all gigantic terrifying monsters.

And in the end, our Sun is absolutely huge compared to the smallest stars out there. We here like to think of our Sun as perfectly adequate for our needs, it’s ours and all life on Earth is there because of it. It’s exactly the right size for us. So don’t you worry for one second about all those other big stars out there.

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Foom! ‘Superflares’ Erupt From Tiny Red Dwarf Star, Surprising Scientists

Don’t get too close to this little star! In April, a red dwarf star sent out a series of explosions that peaked at 10,000 times as powerful as the largest solar flare ever recorded.

The tiny star packs a powerful punch because its spin is so quick: it rotates in less than a day, or 30 times faster than the Sun does. Astronomers believe that in the distant past, when the Sun was young, it also was a fast turner — and could have produced “superflares”, as NASA terms the explosions, of its own.

“We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks,” stated Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “This was a very complex event.”

The surprising activity came from a red dwarf star in a binary system that together is known as DG Canum Venaticorum (DG CVn). Located just 60 light-years away, the two red dwarfs are each about one-third the size and mass of the Sun. Astronomers can’t say for sure which one sent out the eruption because the stars were so close to each other, at about three times the distance of Earth’s average distance to the sun.

The first flare (which sent out a burst of X-rays) caused an alert in NASA’s Swift Space Telescope’s burst alert telescope on April 23. It’s believed to be caused by the same process that creates flares on our Sun — magnetic field lines twisting and then releasing a burst of energy that sends out radiation.

Three hours later came another flare — scientists have seen similar events on the Sun after one active region sets off flares in another — and then came “successively weaker blasts” in the next 11 days, NASA said. Normal X-ray emissions stabilized about 20 days after the first flare. Swift is now monitoring this star for further activity.

Drake presented his results at the August meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s high energy astrophysics division, which was highlighted in a recent release from NASA.

Source: NASA

14 Red Dwarf Stars to View with Backyard Telescopes

They’re nearby, they’re common and — at least in the latest exoplanet newsflashes hot off the cyber-press — they’re hot. We’re talking about red dwarf stars, those “salt of the galaxy” stars that litter the Milky Way. And while it’s true that there are more of “them” than there are of “us,” not a single one is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from the skies of Earth.

A reader recently brought up an engaging discussion of what red dwarfs might be within reach of a backyard telescope, and thus this handy compilation was born.

Of course, red dwarfs are big news as possible hosts for life-bearing planets. Though the habitable zones around these stars would be very close in, these miserly stars will shine for trillions of years, giving evolution plenty of opportunity to do its thing. These stars are, however, tempestuous in nature, throwing out potentially planet sterilizing flares.

Red dwarf stars range from about 7.5% the mass of our Sun up to 50%. Our Sun is very nearly equivalent 1000 Jupiters in mass, thus the range of red dwarf stars runs right about from 75 to 500 Jupiter masses.

For this list, we considered red dwarf stars brighter than +10th magnitude, with the single exception of 40 Eridani C as noted.

The closest stars within 14 light years of our solar system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain graphic.
The closest stars within 14 light years of our solar system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain graphic.

I know what you’re thinking…  what about the closest? At magnitude +11, Proxima Centauri in the Alpha Centauri triple star system 4.7 light years distant didn’t quite make the cut. Barnard’s Star (see below) is the closest in this regard. Interestingly, the brown dwarf pair Luhman 16 was discovered just last year at 6.6 light years distant.

Also, do not confuse red dwarfs with massive carbon stars. In fact, red dwarfs actually appear to have more of an orange hue visually! Still, with the wealth of artist’s conceptions (see above) out there, we’re probably stuck with the idea of crimson looking red dwarf stars for some time to come.

 

Star Magnitude Constellation R.A. Dec
Groombridge 34 +8/11(v) Andromeda 00h 18’ +44 01’
40 Eridani C +11 Eridanus 04h 15’ -07 39’
AX Microscopii/Lacaille 8760 +6.7 Microscopium 21h 17’ -38 52’
Barnard’s Star +9.5 Ophiuchus 17h 58’ +04 42’
Kapteyn’s Star +8.9 Pictor 05h 12’ -45 01’
Lalande 21185 +7.5 Ursa Major 11h 03’ +35 58’
Lacaille 9352 +7.3 Piscis Austrinus 23h 06’ -35 51’
Struve 2398 +9.0 Draco 18h 43’ +59 37’
Luyten’s Star +9.9 Canis Minor 07h 27’ +05 14’
Gliese 687 +9.2 Draco 17h 36’ +68 20’
Gliese 674 +9.9 Ara 17h 29’ -46 54’
Gliese 412 +8.7 Ursa Major 11h 05’ +43 32’
AD Leonis +9.3 Leo 10h 20’ +19 52’
Gliese 832 +8.7 Grus 21h 34’ -49 01’

 

Notes on each:

Groombridge 34: Located less than a degree from the +6th magnitude star 26 Andromedae in the general region of the famous galaxy M31, Groombridge 34 was discovered back in 1860 and has a large proper motion of 2.9″ arc seconds per year.

Locating Groombridge 34. Created using Stellarium.
Locating Groombridge 34. Created using Stellarium.

40 Eridani C:  Our sole exception to the “10th magnitude or brighter” rule for this list, this multiple system is unique for containing a white dwarf, red dwarf and a main sequence K-type star all within range of a backyard telescope.  In sci-fi mythos, 40 Eridani is also the host star for the planet Richese in Dune and the controversial location for Vulcan of Star Trek fame.

Locating 40 Eridani. Created using Stellarium.
Locating 40 Eridani. Created using Stellarium.

AX Microscopii: Also known as Lacaille 8760, AX Microscopii is 12.9 light years distant and is the brightest red dwarf as seen from the Earth at just below naked eye visibility at magnitude +6.7.

A 20 year animation showing the proper motion of  Barnard's Star. Credit: Steve Quirk, images in the Public Domain.
A 20 year animation showing the proper motion of Barnard’s Star. Credit: Steve Quirk, images in the Public Domain.

Barnard’s Star: the second closest star system to our solar system next to Alpha Centuari and the closest solitary red dwarf star at six light years distant, Barnard’s Star also exhibits the highest proper motion of any star at 10.3” arc seconds per year. The center of many controversial exoplanet claims in the 20th century, it’s kind of a cosmic irony that in this era of 1790 exoplanets and counting, planets have yet to be discovered around Barnard’s Star!

Kapteyn’s Star: Discovered by Jacobus Kapteyn in 1898, this red dwarf orbits the galaxy in a retrograde motion and is the closest halo star to us at 12.76 light years distant.

Lalande 21185: currently 8.3 light years away, Lalande 21185 will pass 4.65 light years from Earth and be visible to the naked eye in just under 20,000 years.

Lacaille 9352: 10.7 light years distant, this was the first red dwarf star to have its angular diameter measured by the VLT interferometer in 2001.

Struve 2398: A binary flare star system consisting of two +9th magnitude red dwarfs orbiting each other 56 astronomical units apart and 11.5 light years distant.

Luyten’s Star: 12.36 light years distant, this star is only 1.2 light years from the bright star Procyon, which would appear brighter than Venus for any planet orbiting Luyten’s Star.

Gliese 687: 15 light years distant, Gliese 687 is known to have a Neptune-mass planet in a 38 day orbit.

Gliese 674: Located 15 light years distant, ESO’s HARPS spectrograph detected a companion 12 times the mass of Jupiter that is either a high mass exoplanet or a low mass brown dwarf.

Gliese 412: 16 light years distant, this system also contains a +15th magnitude secondary companion 190 Astronomical Units from its primary.

AD Leonis: A variable flare star in the constellation Leo about 16 light years distant.

Gliese 832: Located 16 light years distant, this star is known to have a 0.6x Jupiter mass exoplanet in a 3,416 day orbit.

The closest stars to our solar system over the next 80,000 years. Credit:  FrancescoA under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The closest stars to our solar system over the next 80,000 years. Credit: FrancescoA under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Consider this list a teaser, a telescopic appetizer for a curious class of often overlooked objects. Don’t see you fave on the list? Want to see more on individual objects, or similar lists of quasars, white dwarfs, etc in the range of backyard telescopes in the future? Let us know. And while it’s true that such stars may not have a splashy appearance in the eyepiece, part of the fun comes from knowing what you’re seeing. Some of these stars have a relatively high proper motion, and it would be an interesting challenge for a backyard astrophotographer to build an animation of this over a period of years. Hey, I’m just throwing that out project out there, we’ve got lots more in the files…

 

 

 

 

Planets Plentiful Around Abundant Red Dwarf Stars, Study Says

Good news for planet-hunters: planets around red dwarf stars are more abundant than previously believed, according to new research. A new study — which detected eight new planets around these stars — says that “virtually” all red dwarfs have planets around them. Moreover, super-Earths (planets that are slightly larger than our own) are orbiting in the habitable zone of about 25% of red dwarfs nearby Earth.

“We are clearly probing a highly abundant population of low-mass planets, and can readily expect to find many more in the near future – even around the very closest stars to the Sun,” stated Mikko Tuomi, who is from the University of Hertfordshire’s centre for astrophysics research and lead author of the study.

The find is exciting for astronomers as red dwarf stars make up about 75% of the universe’s stars, the study authors stated.

The researchers looked at data from two planet-hunting surveys: HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) and UVES (Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph), which are both at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The two instruments measure the effect a planet has on its parent star, specifically by examining the gravitational “wobble” the planet’s orbit produces.

An artist's concept of a rocky world orbiting a red dwarf star. (Credit: NASA/D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian center for Astrophysics).
An artist’s concept of a rocky world orbiting a red dwarf star. (Credit: NASA/D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian center for Astrophysics).

Putting the information from both sets of data together, this amplified the planet “signals” and revealed eight planets around red dwarf stars, including three super-Earths in habitable zones. The researchers also applied a probability function to estimate how abundant planets are around this type of star.

The planets are between 15 and 80 light years away from Earth, and add to the 17 other planets found around low-mass dwarfs. Scientists also detected 10 weaker signals that could use more investigation, they said.

The study will be available shortly in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available in preprint version at this link.

Source: University of Hertfordshire

‘Wobbly’ Alien Planet Has Weird Seasons And Orbits Two Stars

We’re lucky to live on a planet where it’s predictably warmer in the summer and colder in the winter in many regions, at least within a certain range. On Kepler-413b, it’s a world where you’d have to check the forecast more frequently, because its axis swings by a wild 30 degrees every 11 years. On Earth, by comparison, it takes 26,000 years to tilt by a somewhat lesser amount (23.5 degrees).

The exoplanet, which is 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, orbits two dwarf stars — an orange one and a red one — every 66 days. While it would be fun to imagine a weather forecast on this planet, in reality it’s likely too hot for life (it’s close to its parent stars) and also huge, at 65 Earth-masses or a “super-Neptune.”

What’s even weirder is how hard it was to characterize the planet. Normally, astronomers spot these worlds either by watching them go across the face of their parent star(s), or by the gravitational wobbles they induce in those stars. The orbit, however, is tilted 2.5 degrees to the stars, which makes the transits far more unpredictable. It took several years of Kepler space telescope data to find a pattern.

“What we see in the Kepler data over 1,500 days is three transits in the first 180 days (one transit every 66 days), then we had 800 days with no transits at all,” stated Veselin Kostov, the principal investigator on the observation. “After that, we saw five more transits in a row,” added Kostov, who works both with the  the Space Telescope Science Institute and  Johns Hopkins University  in Baltimore, Md.

It will be an astounding six years until the next transit happens in 2020, partly because of that wobble and partly because the stars have small diameters and aren’t exactly “edge-on” to our view from Earth. As for why this planet is behaving the way it does, no one is sure. Maybe other planets are messing with the orbit, or a third star is doing the same thing.

The next major question, the astronomers added, is if there are other planets out there like this that we just can’t see because of the gap between transit periods.

You can read more about this finding in The Astrophysical Journal (a Jan. 29 publication that doesn’t appear to be on the website yet) or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute