In just nine months (October 31st, 2021), NASA’s long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally be launched to space. Once operational, this next-generation observatory will use its powerful infrared imaging capabilities to study all kinds of cosmological phenomena. It will also be essential to the characterization of extrasolar planets and their atmospheres to see if any are habitable.
In anticipation of this, astronomers have been designating exoplanets as viable candidates for follow-up studies. Using data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an international team led by MIT researchers discovered four new exoplanets orbiting a Sun-like star about 200 light-years from Earth. This system could be an ideal place for James Webb to spot a habitable planet.
Astronomers have long understood that there is a link between a star’s magnetic activity and the amount of X-rays it emits. When stars are young, they are magnetically active, due to the fact that they undergo rapid rotation. But over time, the stars lose rotational energy and their magnetic fields weaken. Concurrently, their associated X-ray emissions also begin to drop.
Interestingly, this relationship between a star’s magnetic activity and X-ray emissions could be a means for finding potentially-habitable star systems. Hence why an international team led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast conducted a study where they cataloged the X-ray activity of 24 Sun-like stars. In so doing, they were able to determine just how hospitable these star systems could be to life.
To understand how stellar magnetic activity (and hence, X-ray activity) changes over time, astronomers require accurate age assessments for many different stars. This has been difficult in the past, but thanks to mission like NASA’s Kepler Space Observatory and the ESA’s Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission, new and precise age estimates have become available in recent years.
Using these age estimates, Booth and her colleagues relied on data from the Chandra X-ray observatory and the XMM-Newton obervatory to examine 24 nearby stars. These stars were all similar in mass to our Sun (a main sequence G-type yellow dwarf star) and at least 1 billion years of age. From this, they determined that there was a clear link between the star’s age and their X-ray emissions. As they state in their study:
“We find 14 stars with detectable X-ray luminosities and use these to calibrate the age-activity relationship. We find a relationship between stellar X-ray luminosity, normalized by stellar surface area, and age that is steeper than the relationships found for younger stars…”
In short, of the 24 stars in their sample, the team found that 14 had X-ray emissions that were discernible. From these, they were able to calculate the star’s ages and determine that there was a relationship between their longevity and luminosity. Ultimately, this demonstrated that stars like our Sun are likely to emit less high-energy radiation as they exceed 1 billion years in age.
And while the reason for this is not entirely clear, astronomers are currently exploring various possible causes. One possibility is that for older stars, the reduction in spin rate happens more quickly than it does for younger stars. Another possibility is that the X-ray brightness declines more quickly for older, more slowly-rotating stars than it does for younger, faster ones.
Regardless of the cause, the relationship between a star’s age and its X-ray emissions could provide astronomers and exoplanet hunters with another tool for gauging the possible habitability of a system. Wherever a G-type or K-type star is to be found, knowing the age of the star could help place constraints on the potential habitability of any planets that orbit it.
It has been an exciting time for the field of exoplanet studies lately! Last summer, researchers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of an Earth-like planet (Proxima b) located in the star system that is the nearest to our own. And just six months ago, an international team of astronomers announced the discovery of seven rocky planets orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1.
But in what could be the most encouraging discovery for those hoping to find a habitable planet beyond Earth, an an international team of astronomers just announced the discovery of four exoplanet candidates in the tau Ceti system. Aside from being close to the Solar System – just 12 light-years away – this find is also encouraging because the planet candidates orbit a star very much like our own!
This discovery was made possible thanks to ongoing improvements in instrumentation, observation and data-sharing, which are allowing for surveys of ever-increasing sensitivity. As Steven Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and a co-author on the paper, said in a UCSC press release:
“We are now finally crossing a threshold where, through very sophisticated modeling of large combined data sets from multiple independent observers, we can disentangle the noise due to stellar surface activity from the very tiny signals generated by the gravitational tugs from Earth-sized orbiting planets.”
This is the latest in a long-line of surveys of tau Ceti, which has been of interest to astronomers for decades. By 1988, several radial velocity measurements were conducted of the star system that ruled out the possibility of massive planets at Jupiter-like distances. In 2012, astronomers from UC Santa Barabara presented a study that indicated that tau Ceti might be orbited by five exoplanets, two of which were within the star’s habitable zone.
The team behind that study included several members who produced this latest study. At the time, lead author Mikko Tuomi (University of Hertfordshire, a co-author on the most recent one) was leading an effort to develop better data analysis techniques, and used this star as a benchmark case. As Tuomi explained, theses efforts allowed them to rule out two of the signals that has previously been identified as planets:
“We came up with an ingenious way of telling the difference between signals caused by planets and those caused by star’s activity. We realized that we could see how star’s activity differed at different wavelengths and use that information to separate this activity from signals of planets.”
From this, they were able to create a model that removed “wavelength dependent noise” from radial velocity measurements. After applying this model to surveys made of tau Ceti, they were able to obtain measurements that were sensitive enough to detect variations in the star’s movement as small as 30 cm per second. In the end, they concluded that tau Ceti has a system of no more than four exoplanets.
As Tuomi indicated, after several surveys and attempts to eliminate extraneous noise, astronomers may finally have a clear picture of how many planets tau Ceti has, and of what type. “[N]o matter how we look at the star, there seem to be at least four rocky planets orbiting it,” he said. “We are slowly learning to tell the difference between wobbles caused by planets and those caused by stellar active surface. This enabled us to essentially verify the existence of the two outer, potentially habitable planets in the system.”
They further estimate from their refined measurements that these planets have masses ranging from four Earth-masses (aka. “super-Earths”) to as low as 1.7 Earth masses, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around a nearby sun-like star. But most exciting of all is the fact that that two of these planets (tau Ceti e and f) are located within the star’s habitable zone.
The reason for this is because tau Ceti is a G-type (yellow dwarf) star, which makes it similar to our own Sun – about 0.78 times as massive and half as bright. In contrast, many recently discovered exoplanets – such as Proxima b and the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 – all orbit M-type (red dwarf) stars. Compared to our Sun, these stars are variable and unstable, increasing their chances of stripping the atmospheres of their respective planets.
In addition, since red dwarfs are much dimmer than our Sun, a rocky planet would have to orbit very closely to them in order to be within their habitable zones. At this kind of distance, the planet would likely be tidally-locked, meaning that one side would constantly be facing towards the sun. This too makes the odds of life emerging on any such planet pretty slim.
Because of this, astronomers have been looking forward to finding more exoplanets around stars that are closer in size, mass and luminosity to our own. But before anyone gets too excited, its important to note these worlds are Super-Earths – with up to four times the mass of Earth. This means that (depending on their density as well) any life that might emerge on these planets would be subject to significantly increased gravity.
In addition, a massive debris disc surrounds the star, which means that these outermost planets are probably subjected to intensive bombardment by asteroids and comets. This not doesn’t exactly bode well for potential life on these planets! Still, this study is very encouraging, and for a number of reasons. Beyond finding strong evidence of exoplanets around a Sun-like star, the measurements that led to their detection are the most sensitive to date.
At the rate that their methods are improving, researchers should be getting to the 10-centimeter-per-second limit in no time at all. This is the level of sensitively required for detecting Earth analogs – aka. the brass ring for exoplanet-hunters. As Feng indicated:
“Our detection of such weak wobbles is a milestone in the search for Earth analogs and the understanding of the Earth’s habitability through comparison with these analogs. We have introduced new methods to remove the noise in the data in order to reveal the weak planetary signals.”
Think of it! In no time at all, exoplanet-hunters could be finding a plethora of planets that are not only very close in size and mass to Earth, but also orbiting within their stars habitable zones. At that point, scientists are sure to dispense with decidedly vague terms like “potentially habitable” and “Earth-like” and begin using terms like “Earth-analog” confidently. No more ambiguity, just the firm conviction that Earth is not unique!
With an estimated 100 billion planets in our galaxy alone, we’re sure to find several Earths out here. One can only hope they have given rise to complex life like our own, and that they are in the mood to chat!
Are you ready to add another planet to the growing list of discoveries? Thanks to work done by Steve Howell of the NASA Ames Research Center and his research team, the Kepler Mission has scored another. Cataloged as 21-b, this “new” planet measures about one and half times the Earth’s radius and no more than 10 times the mass… but its “year” is only 2.8 days long!
With such a speedy orbit around its parent star, this little planet quickly drew attention to itself. Kepler 21-b’s sun is much like our own and one of the brightest in the Kepler field. Given its unique set of circumstances, it required a team of over 65 astronomers (that included David Silva, Ken Mighell and Mark Everett of NOAO) and cooperation with several ground-based telescopes including the 4 meter Mayall telescope and the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory to confirm its existence.
At this point, observations place this hot little planet at about 6 million kilometers away from the parent star, where it has estimated temperatures of about 1900 K, or 2960 F. While this isn’t even anywhere near a life-supporting type of planet, Kepler 21-b remains of interest because of its size. The parent star, HD 179070, is just slightly larger than the Sun and about half its age. Regardless, it can still be seen with optical aid and it is only about 352 light years away from Earth.
Why are findings like these exciting? Probably because a large amount of stars show short period brightness oscillations – which means it’s difficult to detect a planetary passage from a normal light curve. In this case, it took 15 long months to build up enough information – including spectroscopic and imaging data from a number of ground based telescopes – to make a confident call on the planet’s presence.
It ain’t easy being a little planet… But they can be found!