New Study Claims There are Four Exoplanets Around Nearest Sun-Like Star!

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!

The study that details these findings – “Color difference makes a difference: four planet candidates around tau Ceti” – recently appeared online and has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. Led by researchers from the Center for Astrophysics Research (CAR) at the University of Hertfordshire, the team analyzed tau Ceti using a noise-eliminating model to determine the presence of four Earth-like planets.

This illustration compares the four planets detected around the nearby star tau Ceti (top) and the inner planets of our solar system (bottom). Credit: Fabo Feng/CAR/Univ. of Hertfordshire

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.”

Artist’s impression of the Tau Ceti system, based on data retrieved in 2012. Credit: J. Pinfield/Univ. of Hertfordshire

For the sake of this latest study – which was led by Fabo Feng, a member of the CAR – the team relied on data provided by the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, and the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

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.

Recent studies have shown that rocky planets orbiting red dwarf stars will be tidally-locked and subject to intense radiation, reducing their chances of being habitable. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

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.

Artist’s impression of how an infant earth might look. Credit: ESO.

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!

Further Reading: UCSC, arXiv

What is a Terrestrial Planet?

In studying our Solar System over the course of many centuries, astronomers learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist in our universe. This knowledge has since expanded thanks to the discovery of extrasolar planets, many of which are similar to what we have observed here at home.

For example, while hundreds of gas giants of varying size have been detected (which are easier to detect because of their size), numerous planets have also been spotted that are similar to Earth – aka. “Earth-like”. These are what is known as terrestrial planets, a designation which says a lot about a planet how it came to be.

Definition:

Also known as a telluric or rocky planet, a terrestrial planet is a celestial body that is composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals and has a solid surface. This distinguishes them from gas giants, which are primarily composed of gases like hydrogen and helium, water, and some heavier elements in various states.

The term terrestrial planet is derived from the Latin “Terra” (i.e. Earth). Terrestrial planets are therefore those that are “Earth-like”, meaning they are similar in structure and composition to planet Earth.

Earth-like planets. Image Credit: JPL
Artist’s concept for the range of Earth-like extrasolar planets that have been discovered in recent years. Credit: NASA/JPL

Composition and Characteristics:

All terrestrial planets have approximately the same type of structure: a central metallic core composed of mostly iron, with a surrounding silicate mantle. Such planets have common surface features, which include canyons, craters, mountains, volcanoes, and other similar structures, depending on the presence of water and tectonic activity.

Terrestrial planets also have secondary atmospheres, which are generated through volcanism or comet impacts. This also differentiates them from gas giants, where the planetary atmospheres are primary and were captured directly from the original solar nebula.

Terrestrial planets are also known for having few or no moons. Venus and Mercury have no moons, while Earth has only the one (the Moon). Mars has two satellites, Phobos and Deimos, but these are more akin to large asteroids than actual moons. Unlike the gas giants, terrestrial planets also have no planetary ring systems.

The Earth's layers. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s interior structure, shown here as consisting of multiple “layers”. Credit: discovermagazine.com

Solar Terrestrial Planets:

All those planets found within the Inner Solar System – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – are examples of terrestrial planets. Each are composed primarily of silicate rock and metal, which is differentiated between a dense, metallic core and a silicate mantle. The Moon is similar, but has a much smaller iron core.

Io and Europa are also satellites that have internal structures similar to that of terrestrial planets. In the case of the former, models of the moon’s composition suggest that the mantle is composed primarily of silicate rock and iron, which surrounds a core of iron and iron sulphide. Europa, on the other hand, is believed to have an iron core that is surrounded by an outer layer of water.

Dwarf planets, like Ceres and Pluto, and other large asteroids are similar to terrestrial planets in the fact that they do have a solid surface. However, they differ in that they are, on average, composed of more icy materials than rock.

Extrasolar Terrestrial Planets:

Most of the planets detected outside of the Solar System have been gas giants, owing to the fact that they are easier to spot. However, since 2005, hundreds of potentially terrestrial extrasolar planets have been found – mainly by the Kepler space mission. Most of these have been what is known as “super-Earths” (i.e. planets with masses between Earth’s and Neptune’s).

Examples of extrasolar terrestrial planets include Gliese 876 d, a planet that has a mass 7 to 9 times that of Earth. This planet orbits the red dwarf Gliese 876, which is located approximately 15 light years from Earth. The existence of three (or possibly four) terrestrial exoplanets was also confirmed between 2007 and 2010 in the Gliese 581 system, another red dwarf roughly 20 light years from Earth.

The smallest of these, Gliese 581 e, is only about 1.9 Earth masses, but orbits very close to the star. Two others, Gliese 581 c and Gliese 581 d, as well as a proposed fourth planet (Gliese 581 g) are more-massive super-Earths orbiting in or close to the habitable zone of the star. If true, this could mean that these worlds are potentially habitable Earth-like planets.

The first confirmed terrestrial exoplanet, Kepler-10b – a planet with between 3 and 4 Earth masses and located some 460 light years from Earth – was found in 2011 by the Kepler space mission. In that same year, the Kepler Space Observatory team released a list of 1235 extrasolar planet candidates, including six that were “Earth-size” or “super-Earth-size” (i.e. less than 2 Earth radii) and which were located within their stars’ habitable zones.

Since then, Kepler has discovered hundreds of planets ranging from Moon-sized to super-Earths, with many more candidates in this size range. As of January, 2013, 2740 planet candidates have been discovered.

Categories:

Scientists have proposed several categories for classifying terrestrial planets. Silicate planets are the standard type of terrestrial planet seen in the Solar System, which are composed primarily of a silicon-based rocky mantle and a metallic (iron) core.

Iron planets are a theoretical type of terrestrial planet that consists almost entirely of iron and therefore has a greater density and a smaller radius than other terrestrial planets of comparable mass. Planets of this type are believed to form in the high-temperature regions close to a star, and where the protoplanetary disk is rich in iron. Mercury is possible example, which formed close to our Sun and has a metallic core equal to 60–70% of its planetary mass.

Coreless planets are another theoretical type of terrestrial planet, one that consists of silicate rock but has no metallic core. In other words, coreless planets are the opposite of an iron planet. Coreless planets are believed to form farther from the star where volatile oxidizing material is more common. Though the Solar System has no coreless planets, chondrite asteroids and meteorites are common.

And then there are Carbon planets (aka. “diamond planets”), a theoretical class of planets that are composed of a metal core surrounded by primarily carbon-based minerals. Again, the Solar System has no planets that fit this description, but has an abundance of carbonaceous asteroids.

Until recently, everything scientists knew about planets – which included how they form and the different types that exist – came from studying our own Solar System. But with the explosion that has taken place in exoplanet discovery in the past decade, what we know about planets has grown significantly.

For one, we have come to understand that the size and scale of planets is greater than previously thought. What’s more, we’ve seen for the first time that many planets similar to Earth (which could also include being habitable) do in fact exist in other Solar Systems.

Who knows what we will find once we have the option of sending probes and manned missions to other terrestrial planets?

Universe Today has articles on smallest terrestrial exoplanet and gas planets. For the latest information on confirmed extrasolar planets, be sure to check out the Kepler’s Planet Candidates.

For a full list of all confirmed and potential planets, consult the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopaedia.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on the terrestrial planets including Mars, and an interview with Darin Ragozzine, one of the Kepler Space Mission scientists.

Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

The search for exoplanets is heating up, thanks to the deployment of space telescopes like Kepler and the development of new observation methods. In fact, over 1800 exoplanets have been discovered since the 1980s, with 850 discovered just last year. That’s quite the rate of progress, and Earth’s scientists have no intention of slowing down!

Hot on the heels of the Kepler mission and the ESA’s deployment of the Gaia space observatory last year, NASA is getting ready to launch TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). And to provide the launch services, NASA has turned to one of its favorite commercial space service providers – SpaceX.

The launch will take place in August 2017 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it will be placed aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 – a heavier version of the v 1.0 developed in 2013. Although NASA has contracted SpaceX to perform multiple cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, this will be only the second time that SpaceX has assisted the agency with the launch of a science satellite.

This past September, NASA also signed a lucrative contract with SpaceX worth $2.6 billion to fly astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. As part of the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft were selected by NASA to help restore indigenous launch capability to the US.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope, the space observatory scheduled for launch in 2018. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The total cost for TESS is estimated at approximately $87 million, which will include launch services, payload integration, and tracking and maintenance of the spacecraft throughout the course of its three year mission.

As for the mission itself, that has been the focus of attention for many years. Since it was deployed in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has yielded more and more data on distant planets, many of which are Earth-like and potentially habitable. But in 2013, two of four reaction wheels on Kepler failed and the telescope has lost its ability to precisely point toward stars. Even though it is now doing a modified mission to hunt for exoplanets, NASA and exoplanet enthusiasts have been excited by the prospect of sending up another exoplanet hunter, one which is even more ideally suited to the task.

Once deployed, TESS will spend the next three years scanning the nearest and brightest stars in our galaxy, looking for possible signs of transiting exoplanets. This will involve scanning nearby stars for what is known as a “light curve”, a phenomenon where the visual brightness of a star drops slightly due to the passage of a planet between the star and its observer.

By measuring the rate at which the star dims, scientists are able to estimate the size of the planet passing in front of it. Combined with measurements the star’s radial velocity, they are also able to determine the density and physical structure of the planet. Though it has some drawbacks, such as the fact that stars rarely pass directly in front of their host stars, it remains the most effective means of observing exoplanets to date.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection:   radial velocity   transit   timing   direct imaging   microlensing. Image Credit: Public domain
Number of extrasolar planet discoveries on up to Sept. 2014, with colors indicating method of detection. Blue: radial velocity; Green: transit; Yellow: timing, Red: direct imaging; Orange: microlensing. Image Credit: Alderon/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, as of 2014, this method became the most widely used for determining the presence of exoplanets beyond our Solar System. Compared to other methods – such as measuring a star’s radial velocity, direct imaging, the timing method, and microlensing – more planets have been detected using the transit method than all the other methods combined.

In addition to being able to spot planets by the comparatively simple method of measuring their light curve, the transit method also makes it possible to study the atmosphere of a transiting planet. Combined with the technique of measuring the parent star’s radial velocity, scientists are also able to measure a planet’s mass, density, and physical characteristics.

With TESS, it will be possible to study the mass, size, density and orbit of exoplanets. In the course of its three-year mission, TESS will be looking specifically for Earth-like and super-Earth candidates that exist within their parent star’s habitable zone.

This information will then be passed on to Earth-based telescopes and the James Webb Space Telescope – which will be launched in 2018 by NASA with assistance from the European and Canadian Space Agencies – for detailed characterization.

The TESS Mission is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – who developed it with seed funding from Google – and is overseen by the Explorers Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Further Reading: NASA, SpaceX