To date, astronomers have confirmed 5,272 exoplanets in 3,943 systems using a variety of detection methods. Of these, 1,834 are Neptune-like, 1,636 are gas giants (Jupiter-sized or larger), 1,602 are rocky planets several times the size and mass of Earth (Super-Earths), and 195 have been Earth-like. With so many exoplanets available for study (and next-generation instruments optimized for the task), the process is shifting from discovery to characterization. And discoveries, which are happening regularly, are providing teasers of what astronomers will likely see in the near future.
According to the most widely-accepted theory about star formation (Nebular Hypothesis), stars and planets form from huge clouds of dust and gas. These clouds undergo gravitational collapse at their center, leading to the birth of new stars, while the rest of the material forms disks around it. Over time, these disks become ring structures that accrete to form systems of planets, planetoids, asteroid belts, and Kuiper belts. For some time, astronomers have questioned how interactions between early stellar environments may affect their formation and evolution.
For instance, it has been theorized that gravitational interactions with a passing star or shock waves from a supernova might have triggered the core collapse that led to our Sun. To investigate this possibility, an international team of astronomers observed three interacting twin disc systems using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Their findings show that due to their dense stellar environments, gravitational encounters between early-stage star systems play a significant role in their evolution.
According to the most widely-accepted theory, planetary systems form from large clouds of dust and gas that form disks around young stars. Over time, these disks accrete to create planets of varying size, composition, and distance from their parent star. In the past few decades, observations in the mid- and far-infrared wavelengths have led to the discovery of debris disks around young stars (less than 100 million years old). This has allowed astronomers to study planetary systems in their early history, providing new insight into how systems form and evolve.
This includes the SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets (SHINE) consortium, an international team of astronomers dedicated to studying star systems in formation. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the SHINE collaboration recently directly imaged and characterized the debris disk of a nearby star (HD 114082) in visible and infrared wavelengths. Combined with data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Space Satellite (TESS), they were able to detect a gas giant many times the size of Jupiter (a “Super-Jupiter”) embedded within the disk.
Planets aren’t the only celestial objects with moons – asteroids can have them too. They are usually other, smaller asteroids in orbit around a larger central one. Now, a team of Thai and French astronomers found an asteroid system with three satellites. The new four-body system makes complex gravitational problems like the three-body problem look simple by comparison.
Our closest stellar neighbour is Proxima Centauri, a small red dwarf star about 4.2 light years away from us. It’s the third member of the Alpha Centauri group, and even though it’s so close, it can’t be seen with the naked eye. In 2016 astronomers discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centuari, named Proxima Centauri b. That planet was confirmed only a few days ago.
Now, astronomers have confirmed the existence of a second planet, Proxima Centauri c.
In 2017, astronomers used ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) to look at the star AB Aurigae. It’s a type of young star called a Herbig Ae star, and it’s less then 10 million years old. At that time, they found a dusty protoplanetary disk there, with tell-tale gaps indicating spiral arms.
Now they’ve taken another look, and found a very young planet forming there.
In 2016, astronomers working for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of a terrestrial planet around Earth’s closest stellar neighbor – Proxima Centauri. The discovery of this nearby extrasolar planet (Proxima b) caused no shortage of excitement because, in addition to being similar in size to Earth, it was found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone (HZ).
Thanks to an INAF-led team, a second exoplanet (a super-Earth) was found early this year around Proxima Centauri using the Radial Velocity Method. Based on the separation between the two planets, another INAF-led team attempted to observe this planet using the Direct Imaging Method. While not entirely successful, their observations raise the possibility that this planet has a system of rings around it, much like Saturn.
In 1802, German astronomer Heinrich Olbers observed what he thought was a planet within the Main Asteroid Belt. In time, astronomers would come to name this body Pallas, an alternate name for the Greek warrior goddess Athena. The subsequent discovery of many more asteroids in the Main Belt would lead to Pallas being reclassified as a large asteroid, the third-largest in the Belt after Ceres and Vesta.
For centuries, astronomers have sought to get a better look at Pallas to learn more about its size, shape, and composition. As of the turn of the century, astronomers had come to conclude that it was an oblate spheroid (an elongated sphere). Thanks to a new study by an international team, the first detailed images of Pallas have finally been taken, which reveal that its shape is more akin to a “golf ball” – i.e. heavily dimpled.
Within the Main Asteroid Belt, there are a number of larger bodies that have defied traditional classification. The largest among them is Ceres, which is followed by Vesta, Pallas, and Hygeia. Until recently, Ceres was thought to be the only object in the Main Belt large enough to undergo hydrostatic equilibrium – where an object is sufficiently massive that its gravity causes it to collapse into a roughly spherical shape.
On May 25th, 2019, a strange, double-asteroid (1999 KW4) flew past Earth at a distance and speed that is likely to make a lot of people nervous. As always, there was no danger, since the asteroid passed Earth at a minimum distance of 5.2 million km (3.23 million mi), over 15 times greater than the distance between Earth of the Moon, and its orbit is well-understood by scientists.
Because of this, flyby was the perfect opportunity for the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) to conduct a cross-organizational observing campaign of the asteroid 1999 KW4 as it flew by Earth. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) took part in this campaign and managed to capture some images of the object using the Very Large Telescope (VLT).