Super Earth Planet Found Around One of the Closest Stars to us. But it’s Probably a Terrible Place to Live

In the course of searching for extra-solar planets, some very interesting finds have been made. Some of them have even occurred within our own galactic neighborhood. Just two years ago, astronomers from the Red Dots and CARMENES campaigns announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet that orbits within the habitable zone of our nearest stellar neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

This rocky world, which may be habitable, remains the closest exoplanet ever discovered to our Solar System. A few days ago (on Nov. 14th), Red Dots and CARMENES announced another find: a rocky planet orbiting Barnard’s star, which is just 6 light years from Earth. This planet, Barnard’s Star b, is now the second closest exoplanet to our Solar System, and the closest planet to orbit a single star.

Continue reading “Super Earth Planet Found Around One of the Closest Stars to us. But it’s Probably a Terrible Place to Live”

A New Extrasolar Planet Has The Composition of Mercury, but 2.5 Times the Mass of Earth

In the course of searching for planets beyond our Solar System – aka. extra-solar planets – some truly interesting cases have been discovered. In addition to planets that are several times the size of the Solar System’s largest planet (Super-Jupiters), astronomers have also found a plethora of terrestrial (i.e rocky) planets that are several times the size of Earth (Super-Earths).

This is certainly true of K2-229b, a rocky planet that was recently discovered by an international team of astronomers. Located 339 light years away, this hot, metallic planet is an exercise in extremes. Not only is it 20% larger than Earth, it is 2.6 times Earth mass and has a composition similar to Mercury. On top of that, its orbits its star so closely that it is several times hotter than Mercury.

The study which details their discovery recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “An Earth-sized exoplanet with a Mercury-like composition“. The study was led by Alexandre Santerne, a researcher from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM) at the Aix-Marseille Université, and included members from the the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the University of Warwick, the Universidade do Porto, and multiple universities and research institutions.

The newly-discovered exoplanet K2-229b is 20% larger than Earth, but has a composition like Mercury. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/USGS/Arizona State University

Using data from the Kepler space telescopes K2 mission, the team was able to identify K2-229b, a Super-Earth that orbits a medium-sized K dwarf (orange dwarf) star in the Virgo Constellation. Using the Radial Velocity Method – aka. Doppler Spectroscopy –  the team was able to determine the planet’s size and mass, which indicated that it is similar in composition to Mercury – i.e. metallic and rocky.

They were also able to determine that it orbits its star at a distance of 0.012 AU with an orbital period of just 14 days. At this distance, K2-229b is roughly one one-hundredth as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun and experiences surface temperature that are several times higher than those on Mercury – reaching a day side temperature 2000 °C (3632 °F), or hot enough to melt iron and silicon.

As Dr. David Armstrong, a researcher from the University of Warwick and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Mercury stands out from the other Solar System terrestrial planets, showing a very high fraction of iron and implying it formed in a different way. We were surprised to see an exoplanet with the same high density, showing that Mercury-like planets are perhaps not as rare as we thought. Interestingly K2-229b is also the innermost planet in a system of at least 3 planets, though all three orbit much closer to their star than Mercury. More discoveries like this will help us shed light on the formation of these unusual planets, as well as Mercury itself.”

Artist’s concept of a collision between two large astronomical objects, which may have been how K2-229b formed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Given its dense, metallic nature, it is something of a mystery of how this planet formed. One theory is that the planet’s atmosphere could have been eroded by intense stellar wind and flares, given that the planet is so close to its star. Another possibility is that it was formed from a huge impact between two giant bodies billions of years ago – similar to the theory of how the Moon formed after Earth collided with a Mars-sized body (named Theia).

As with many recent discoveries, this latest exoplanet is giving astronomers the opportunity to see just what is possible. By studying how them, we are able to learn more about how the Solar System formed and evolved. Given the similarities between K2-229b and Mercury, the study of this exoplanet could teach us much about how Mercury became a dense, metallic planet that orbits closely to our Sun.

Further Reading: Warwick

Planet With Lava Oceans Also has an Atmosphere, Says New Study

The super-Earth 55 Cancri e (aka. Janssen) is somewhat famous, as exoplanet go. Originally discovered in 2004, this world was one of the few whose discovery predated the Kepler mission. By 2016, it was also the first exoplanet to have its atmosphere successfully characterized. Over the years, several studies have been conducted on this planet that revealed some rather interesting things about its composition and structure.

For example, scientists believed at one time that 55 Cancri e was a “diamond planet“, whereas more recent work based on data from the Spitzer Space Telescope concluded that its surface was covered in lakes of hot lava. However, a new study conducted by scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicates that despite its intense surface heat, 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere that is comparable to Earth’s, only much hotter!

The study, titled “A Case for an Atmosphere on Super-Earth 55 Cancri e“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Isabel Angelo (a physics major with UC Berkeley) with the assistance of Renyu Hu – a astronomer and Hubble Fellow with JPL and Caltech – the pair conducted a more detailed analysis of the Spitzer data to determine the likelihood and composition of an atmosphere around 55 Cancri e.

Artist’s impression of the super-Earth 55 Cancri e in front of its parent star. Credit: ESA/NASA

Previous studies of the planet noted that this super-Earth (which is twice as large as our planet), orbits very close to its star. As a result, it has a very short orbital period of about 17 hours and 40 minutes and is tidally locked (with one side constantly facing towards the star). Between June and July of 2013, Spitzer observed 55 Cancri e and obtained temperature data using its special infrared camera.

Initially, the temperature data was seen as being an indication that large deposits of lava existed on the surface. However, after re-analyzing this data and combining it with a new model previously develop by Hu, the team began to doubt this explanation. According to their findings, the planet must have a thick atmosphere, since lava lakes exposed to space would create hots spots of high temperatures.

What’s more, they also noted that the temperature differences between the day and night side were not as significant as previously thought – another indication of an atmosphere. By comparing changes in the planet’s brightness to energy flow models, the team concluded that an atmosphere with volatile materials was the best explanation for the high temperatures. As Renyu Hu explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“If there is lava on this planet, it would need to cover the entire surface. But the lava would be hidden from our view by the thick atmosphere. Scientists have been debating whether this planet has an atmosphere like Earth and Venus, or just a rocky core and no atmosphere, like Mercury. The case for an atmosphere is now stronger than ever.”

Using Hu’s improved model of how heat would flow throughout the planet and radiate back into space, they found that temperatures on the day side would average about 2573 K (2,300 °C; 4,200 °F). Meanwhile, temperatures on the “cold” side would average about 1573 – 1673 K (1,300 – 1,400 °C; 2,400 – to 2,600 °F). If the planet had no atmosphere, the differences in temperature would be far more extreme.

As for the composition of this atmosphere, Angelo and Hu revealed that it is likely similar to Earth’s – containing nitrogen, water and even oxygen. While much hotter, the atmospheric density also appeared to be similar to that of Earth, which suggests the planet is most likely rocky (aka. terrestrial) in composition. On the downside, the temperatures are far too hot for the surface to maintain liquid water, which makes habitability a non-starter.

Ultimately, this study was made possible thanks to Hu’s development of a method that makes the study exoplanet atmospheres and surfaces easier. Angelo, who led the study, worked on it as part of her internship with JPL and adapted Hu’s model to 55 Cancri e. Previously, this model had only been applied to mass gas giants that orbit close to their respective suns (aka. “Hot Jupiters”).

Naturally, there are unresolved questions that this study helps to raise, such as how 55 Cancri e has avoided losing its atmosphere to space. Given how close the planet orbits to its star, and the fact that it’s tidally locked, it would be subject to intense amounts of radiation. Further studies may help to reveal how this is the case, and will help advance our understanding of large, rocky planets.

The application of this model to a Super-Earth is the perfect example of how exoplanet research has been evolving in recent years. Initially, scientists were restricted to studying gas giants that orbit close to their stars (as well as their respective atmospheres) since these are the easiest to spot and characterize. But thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methods, the range of planets we are capable of studying is growing.

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

Three Possible Super-Earths Discovered Around Nearby Sun-Like Star

Since it was launched in 2009, NASA’s Kepler mission has continued to make important exoplanet discoveries. Even after the failure of two reaction wheels, the space observatory has found new life in the form of its K2 mission. All told, this space observatory has detected 5,017 candidates and confirmed the existence of 2,494 exoplanets using the Transit Method during its past eight years in service.

The most recent discovery was made by an international team of astronomers around Gliese 9827 (GJ 9827), a late K-type dwarf star located about 100 light-years from Earth. Using data provided by the K2 mission, they detected the presence of three Super-Earths. This star system is the closest exoplanet-hosting star discovered by K2 to date, which makes these planets well-suited for follow-up studies.

The study which describes their findings, titled “A System of Three Super Earths Transiting the Late K-Dwarf GJ 9827 at Thirty Parsecs“, was recently published online. Led by Dr. Jospeh E. Rodriguez from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the team includes researchers from the University of Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExSci) at Caltech.

The Transit Method, which remains one of the most trusted means for exoplanet detection, consists of monitoring stars for periodic dips in brightness. These dips correspond to planets passing (aka. transiting) in front of the star causing a measurable drop in the light coming from it. This method also offers unique opportunities to examine light passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere. As Dr. Rodriguez told Universe Today via email:

“The success of Kepler combined with ground based radial velocity and transit surveys has now led to the discovery of over 4000 planetary system. Since we now know that planets appear to be quite common, the field has shifted its focus to understand architectures, interior structures, and atmospheres. These key properties of planetary systems help us understand some fundamental questions: how do planets form and evolve? What are the terrestrial planets around other stars like, are they similar to Earth in composition and atmosphere?”

These questions were central to the team’s study, which relied on data obtained during Campaign 12 of the K2 mission – from December 2016 to March 2017. After consulting this data, the team noted the presence of three super-Earth sized planets orbiting in a very compact configuration. This system, as they note in their study, was independently and simultaneously discovered by another team from Wesleyan University.

These three planetary objects, designated as GJ 9827 b, c, and d, are located at a distance of about 0.02, 0.04 and 0.06 AU from their host star (respectively). Owing to their sizes and radii, these planets are classified as “Super-Earths”, and have radii of 1.6, 1.2, and 2.1 times the radius of Earth. They are also located very close to their host star, completing orbits within 6.2 days.

The light curve obtained during Campaign 12 of the K2 mission of the GJ 9827 system. Credit: Rodriguez et al., 2017

Specifically, GJ 9827 b measures 1.64 Earth radii, has a mass of up to 4.25 Earth masses, a 1.2 day orbital period, and a temperature of 1,119 K (846 °C; 1555 °F). Meanwhile, GJ 9827 c measures 1.29 Earth radii, has a mass of 2.62 Earth masses, an orbital period of 3.6 days, and a temperature of 774 K (500 °C; 934°F). Lastly, GJ 9827 d measures 2.08 Earth radii, has a mass of 5.3 Earth masses, a 6.2 day period, and a temperature of 648 K (375 °C; 707 °F).

In short, all three planets are very hot, with temperatures that are hot as Venus and Mercury or (in the case of GJ 9827b) is even hotter! Interestingly, these radii and mass estimates place these planets within the transition boundary between terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets and gas giants. In fact, the team found that GJ 9827 b and c fall in or close to the known gap in radius distribution for planets that are in between these two populations.

In other words, these planets could be rocky or gaseous, and the team won’t know for sure until they can place more accurate constraints on their masses. What’s more, none of these planets are likely to be capable of supporting life, certainly not as we know it! So if you were hoping that this latest find would produce an Earth-analog or potentially habitable planet, you’re sadly mistaken.

Nevertheless, the fact that these planets straddle the radius and mass boundary between terrestrial and gaseous planets – and the fact that this system is the closest planetary system to be identified by the K2 mission – makes the system well-situated for studies designed to probe the interior structure and atmosphere of exoplanets.

Artistic design of the super-Earth orbiting a Sun-like star. Credit: Gabriel Pérez/SMM (IAC)

The reason for this has much to do with the brightness of the host star. In addition to being relatively close to our Sun (~100 light-years), this K-type star is very bright and also relatively small – about 60% the size of our Sun. As a result, any planet passing in front of it would be able to block out more light than if the star were larger. But as noted, there’s also the curious nature of the planets themselves. As Dr. Rodriguez indicated:

Recently, we have found planets around other stars that have no analogue to a planet in our own system. These are known as “super Earths” and they have radii of 1-3 times the radius of the Earth. To add to the complexity of these planets, their is a clear dichotomy in their composition within this radius range. The larger super Earths (>1.6 x radius of the Earth) appear to be less dense, consistent with a puffy Hydrogen/Helium atmosphere. However, the smaller super Earths are more dense, consistent with an Earth-like composition (rock).

“As mentioned above, the GJ 9827 system hosts three super Earth sized planets. Interestingly, planet c has a radius consistent with it being rocky, planet d is consistent with being puffy, and planet b has a radius that is right on what we believe to be the transition boundary between rock and gas. Therefore, by studying the atmospheres of super-Earths, we may better understand the transition from dense rocky planets to puffier planets with very thick atmospheres (like Neptune).”

Artist’s impression of the super-Earth orbiting closely to its parent star. Credit: ESA/NASA

Looking ahead, the team hopes to conduct further studies to determine the masses of these planets more precisely. From this, they will be able to place better constraints on their compositions and determine if they are Super-Earths, mini gas giants, or some of each. Beyond that, they are to conduct more detailed studies of this system with next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in 2018.

“I am really interested in studying the atmosphere of GJ 9827 b, whether it is rocky or puffy,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “This planet has a radius at the rock/gas transition but it is very close to its host star. Therefore, by studying the chemical composition of its atmosphere we may better understand the impact of the host star’s proximity has on the evolution of its atmosphere.  To do this we would use JWST to take spectroscopic observations during the transit of GJ 9827b (known as “Transmission Spectroscopy”). From this observations we will gather information on the chemical composition and extent of the planet’s atmosphere.

Now that we have thousands of extra-solar planet discoveries under our belt, its only natural that research would be shifting towards trying to understand these planets better. In the coming years and decades, we are likely to learn volumes about the respective structures, compositions, atmospheres, and surface features of many distant worlds. One can only imagine what kind of things these studies will turn up!

Further Reading: arXiv

Another Nearby Red Dwarf Star System, Another Possible Exoplanet Discovered!

In the past few years, there has been no shortages of extra-solar planets discoveries which orbit red dwarf stars. In 2016 and 2017 alone,  astronomers announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), a seven-planet system orbiting TRAPPIST-1, and super-Earths orbiting the nearby stars of LHS 1140 (LHS 1140b), and GJ 625 (GJ 625b).

In what could be the latest discovery, physicists at the University of Texas Arlington (UTA) recently announced the possible discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Gliese 832, a red dwarf star just 16 light years away. In the past, astronomers detected two exoplanets orbiting Gliese 832. But after conducting a series of computations, the UTA team indicated that an additional Earth-like planet could be orbiting the star.

The study which details their findings, titled “Dynamics of a Probable Earth-mass Planet in the GJ 832 System“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Dr. Suman Satyal – a physics researcher, lecturer and laboratory supervisor at UTA – the team sought to investigate the stability of planetary orbits around Gliese 832 using a numerical and detailed phase-space analysis.

Artistic representation of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 832c as compared with Earth. Credit: PHL/UPR Arecibo.

As indicated, two other exoplanets had been discovered around Gliese 832 in the past, including a Jupiter-like gas giant (Gliese 832b) in 2008, and the super-Earth (Gliese 832c) in 2014. In many ways, these planets could not be more different. In addition to their disparity in mass, they vary widely in terms of their orbits – with Gliese 832b orbiting at a distance of about 0.16 AU and Gliese 832c orbiting at a distance of 3 to 3.8 AU.

Because of this, the UTA team sought to determine if perhaps there was a third planet with a stable orbit between the two. To this end, they conducted numerical simulations for a three and four body system of planets with elliptical orbits around the star. These simulations took into account a large number of initial conditions, which allowed for  all possible states (aka. s phase-space simulation) of the planet’s orbits to be represented.

They then included the radial velocity measurements of Gliese 832, accounting for them based on the presence of planets with 1 to 15 Earth masses. The Radial Velocity (RV) method, it should be noted, determines the existence of planets around a star based on variations in the star’s velocity. In other words, the fact that a star is moving back and forth indicates that it is being influenced by the presence of a planetary system.

Simulating the star’s RV signal using a hypothetical system of planets also allowed the UTA team to constrain the average distances at which these planets would orbit the star (aka. their semi-major axes) and their upper mass-limits. In the end, their results provided strong indications for the existence of a third planet. As Dr. Satyal explained in a UTA press release:

“We also used the integrated data from the time evolution of orbital parameters to generate the synthetic radial velocity curves of the known and the Earth-like planets in the system. We obtained several radial velocity curves for varying masses and distances indicating a possible new middle planet.”

Diagram showing the possible orbit of a third exoplanet around Gliese 832, a star system located just 16 light years away. Credit: uta.edu/Suman Satyal

Based on their computations, this possible planet of the Gliese 832 system would be between 1 and 15 Earth masses and would orbit the star at a distance ranging from 0.25 to 2.0 AU. They also determined that it would likely have a stable orbit for about 1 billion years. As Dr. Satyal indicated, all signs coming from the Gliese 832 system point towards there being a third planet.

“The existence of this possible planet is supported by long-term orbital stability of the system, orbital dynamics and the synthetic radial velocity signal analysis,” he said. “At the same time, a significantly large number of radial velocity observations, transit method studies, as well as direct imaging are still needed to confirm the presence of possible new planets in the Gliese 832 system.”

Alexander Weiss, the UTA Physics Chair, also lauded the achievement, saying:

“This is an important breakthrough demonstrating the possible existence of a potential new planet orbiting a star close to our own. The fact that Dr. Satyal was able to demonstrate that the planet could maintain a stable orbit in the habitable zone of a red dwarf for more than 1 billion years is extremely impressive and demonstrates the world class capabilities of our department’s astrophysics group.”

Artist’s impression of a Super-Earth orbiting close to a red dwarf star. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Another interesting tidbit is that this planet’s orbit would place it beyond or just within Gliese 832’s habitable zone. Whereas the Super-Earth Gliese 832c has an eccentric orbit that places it at the inner edge of this zone, this third planet would skirt its outer edge at the nearest. In this sense, Gliese 832’s two Super-Earths could very well be Venus-like and Mars-like in nature.

Looking ahead, Dr. Satyal and his colleagues will be naturally be looking to confirm the existence of this planet, and other institutions are sure to conduct similar studies. This star system is yet another that is sure to be the subject of follow-up studies in the coming years, most likely from next-generation space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Further Reading: University of Texas Arlington, The Astrophysical Journal

Is This The Exoplanet Where Life Will First Be Found?

It is good time to be an exoplanet hunter… or just an exoplanet enthusiast for that matter! Every few weeks, it seems, new discoveries are being announced which present more exciting opportunities for scientific research. But even more exciting is the fact that every new find increases the likelihood of locating a potentially habitable planet (and hence, life) outside of our Solar System.

And with the discovery of LHS 1140b – a super-Earth located approximately 39 light years from Earth – exoplanet hunters think they have found the most likely candidate for habitability to date. Not only does this terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet orbit within its sun’s habitable zone, but examinations of the planet (using the transit method) have revealed that it appears to have a viable atmosphere.

Credit for the discovery goes to a team of international scientists who used the MEarth-South telescope array – a robotic observatory located on Cerro Tololo in Chile – to spot the planet. This project monitors the brightness of thousands of red dwarf stars with the goal of detecting transiting planets. After consulting data obtained by the array, the team noted characteristic dips in the star’s brightness that indicated that a planet was passing in front of it.

The MEarth-South telescope array, located on Cerro Tololo in Chile, searches for planets by monitoring the brightness of nearby, small stars. Credit: Jonathan Irwin

These findings were then followed up using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory, located on the outskirts of Chile’s Atacama Desert. According to the their study – which appeared in the April 20th, 2017, issue of the journal Nature – the team was able to make estimates of the planet’s age, size, mass, distance from its star, and orbital period.

They estimate that the planet is at least five billion years old – about 500 million years older than Earth. It is also slightly larger than Earth – 1.4 times Earth’s diameter – and is considerably more massive, weighing in at a hefty 6.6 Earth masses. Since they were able to view the planet almost edge-on, the team was also able to determine that it orbits its sun at a distance of about 0.1 AU (one-tenth the distance between Earth and the Sun) with a period of 25 days.

However, since its star is a red dwarf, this proximity places it in the middle of the system’s habitable zone. But what was most exciting was the fact that the team was able to look for evidence of an atmosphere since the planet was passing in front of its star – something that has not been possible with many exoplanets. Because of this, they were able to conduct transmission spectroscopy measurements that revealed the presence of an atmosphere.

As Jason Dittmann – of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the lead author of the study – said in a CfA press release:

“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade. We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”

This artist’s impression shows the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Credit: ESO/spaceengine.org

Granted, this exoplanet is not as close as Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri – just 4.243 light years away. And it certainly isn’t as robust a find as the TRAPPIST-1 system, with its seven rocky planets, three of which are located within its habitable zone. But compared to these candidates, the researchers were able to place solid constraints on the planet’s mass and density, not to mention the fact that they were able to observe an atmosphere.

The discovery of an exoplanet that orbits a red dwarf star and has an atmosphere is also encouraging in a wider context. Low-mass red dwarf stars are the most common star in the galaxy, accounting for 75% of stars in our cosmic neighborhood alone. They are also long-lived (up to 10 trillion years), and recent research indicates that they are capable of hosting large numbers of planets.

But given their variability and unstable nature,  astronomers have expressed doubts as to whether or not planet orbiting them could retain their atmospheres for very long. Knowing that a terrestrial planet that orbits a red dwarf, is five billion years old, and still has an atmosphere is therefore a very good sign. But of course, simply knowing there is an atmosphere doesn’t mean that it is conducive to life as we know it.

“Right now we’re just making educated guesses about the content of this planet’s atmosphere,” said Dittman. “Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time. We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen.”

This chart shows the location of the faint red star LHS 1140 in the faint constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster). This star is orbited by a super-Earth exoplanet called LHS 1140b, which may be best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System. The star is too faint to be seen in a small telescope.

Hence, additional studies will be needed before this planet can claim the title of “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. To that end, future space-based missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (which will launch in 2018), and ground-based instruments like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope,  will be especially well-suited!

In the meantime, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be conducting observations of the star system in the near future. These observations, it is hoped, will indicate exactly how much high-energy radiation LHS 1140b receives from its sun. This too will go a long way towards determining just how habitable the Super-Earth is.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the LHS 1140 star system, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory and spaceengine.org:

Further Reading: ESO, CfA

Our Sun May Have Eaten A Super Earth For Breakfast

A new paper says that a Super-Earth may have formed in our Solar System and been swallowed by the Sun. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Our Solar System sure seems like an orderly place. The orbits of the planets are predictable enough that we can send spacecraft on multi-year journeys to them and they will reliably reach their destinations. But we’ve only been looking at the Solar System for the blink of an eye, cosmically speaking.

The young Solar System was a much different place. Things were much more chaotic before the planets settled into the orbital stability that they now enjoy. There were crashings and smashings aplenty in the early days, as in the case of Theia, the planet that crashed into Earth, creating the Moon.

Now, a new paper from Rebecca G. Martin and Mario Livio at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that our Solar System may have once had an additional planet that perished when it plunged into the Sun. Strangely enough, the evidence for the formation and existence of this planet may be the lack of evidence itself. The planet, which may have been what’s called a Super-Earth, would have formed quite close to the Sun, and then been destroyed when it was drawn into the Sun by gravity.

In the early days of our Solar System, the Sun would have formed in the centre of a mass of gas and dust. Eventually, when it gained enough mass, it came to life in a burst of atomic fusion. Surrounding the Sun was a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust, out of which the planets formed.

What’s missing in our Solar System is any bodies, or even rocky debris in the zone between Mercury and the Sun. This may seem normal, but the Kepler mission tells us it’s not. In over half of the other solar systems it’s looked at, Kepler has found planets in the same zone where our Solar System has none.

A key part of this idea is that planets don’t always form in situ. That is, they don’t always form at the place where they eventually reach orbital stability. Depending on a number of factors, planets can migrate inward towards their star or outwards away from their star.

Martin and Livio, the authors of the study, think that our Solar System did form a Super-Earth, and rather than it migrating outward, it fell into the Sun. According to them, the Super-Earth most probably formed in the inner regions of our Solar System, on the inside of Mercury’s orbit. The fact that there are no objects there, and no debris of any kind, suggests that the Super-Earth formed close to the Sun, and that its formation cleared that area of any debris. Then, once formed, it fell into the Sun, removing all evidence of its existence.

The authors also note another possible cause for the Super-Earth to have fallen into the Sun. They propose that Jupiter may have migrated inward to about 1.5 AUs from the Sun. At that point, it got locked into resonance with Saturn. Then, both gas giants migrated outward to their current orbits. This process would have shepherded a Super-Earth into the Sun, destroying it.

Some of the thinking behind this whole theory involves the size of the inner terrestrial planets in our Solar System. They’re very small in comparison to other systems studied by the Kepler Mission. If a Super-Earth had formed in the inner part of our System, it would have dominated the accretion of available material, leaving Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars starved for matter.

A key idea behind this study is what’s known as a dead zone. In terms of a solar system and a protoplanetary disk, a dead zone is a zone of low turbulence which favors the formation of planets. A system with a dead zone would have enough material to allow Super-Earths to form in-situ, and they would not have to migrate inward from further out in the system. However, since large planets like Super-Earths take a long time to fully form, this dead zone would have to be long-lived.

If a protoplanetary disk lacks a dead zone, it is likely too turbulent for the formation of a Super-Earth close to the star. A turbulent protoplanetary disk favors the formation of Super-Earths further out, which would then migrate inwards towards the star. Also, a turbulent disk allows for quicker migration of planets, while a pronounced dead zone inhibits migration.

As the authors say in the conclusion of their study, “The lack of Super–Earths in our solar system is somewhat puzzling given that more than half of observed exoplanetary systems contain one. However, the fact that there is nothing
inside of Mercury’s orbit may not be a coincidence.” They go on to conclude that in our Solar System, the likely scenario is the in situ formation of a Super-Earth which subsequently fell into the Sun.

There are a lot of variables that have to be fine-tuned for this scenario to happen. The young solar system would need a dead zone, the depth of the turbulence in the protoplanetary disk would have to be just right, and the disk would have to be the right temperature. The fact that these things have to be within a certain range may explain why we don’t have a Super-Earth in our system, while over half of the systems studied by Kepler do have one.

Is Kapteyn B Not to Be?

Are the ancient planets discovered around Kapteyn’s Star for real?

As the saying goes, all that glitters isn’t gold, and the same could be said in the fast-paced hunt for exoplanets. In 2014, we reported on an exciting new discovery of two new exoplanets orbiting Kapteyn’s Star. The news came out of the American Astronomical Society’s 224th Meeting held in Boston Massachusetts, and immediately grabbed our attention. The current number of exoplanet discoveries as of July 2015 sits at 1,932 and counting.

An M-class red dwarf, Kapteyn’s Star is relatively nearby at only 13 light years distant. The planetary discovery consisted of a  world five times the mass of the Earth  in a 48 day orbit (Kapteyn b), and a world seven times the mass of the Earth  in a 122 day orbit (Kapteyn c). The discovery was hailed as an example of an ancient—possibly over 11 billion years old—system with its innermost world cast as a ‘super-Earth’ in the habitable zone…

But is Kapteyn-b not to be?

An interesting paper came up in the Astrophysical Journal Letters recently that suggests the exoplanets discovered orbiting Kapteyn’s Star in 2014 may in fact be spurious detections.

Image credit: Jcpag2012 under a Wikimedia Commons 4.0 International license
Kapteyn’s Star versus the Sun, Jupiter and the Earth. Image credit: Jcpag2012 under a Wikimedia Commons 4.0 International license

The idea of a planetary system around Kapteyn’s Star, real or not, is an interesting tale of exoplanet science.  The original discovery was made using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planetary research (HARP) instrument at the European Southern Observatory, with supporting observations from the Las Campanas and Keck Observatory. You’d think that would make the discoveries pretty air-tight. The planets discovered orbiting Kapteyn’s Star were discerned using the radial velocity method, looking at the spectra of the star for the characteristic tugging of an unseen companion.

Recent research led by Paul Robertson of Pennsylvania State University suggests that the signal for the discovery of Kapteyn B may in fact be the result of stellar activity. Starspots—think sunspots on our own host star—can mimic the spectral signal of an unseen planet. Analyzing the HARPS data, we know that Kapteyn’s Star rotates once every 143 days. Kapteyn-b’s orbit of 48 days is very close to an integer fraction (143/48= 2.979) making it extremely suspicious.

Universe Today recently caught up with Paul Robertson, who had this to say about exoplanets around Kapteyn’s Star:

Q-How does this put the existence of a planet around Kapteyn’s Star in jeopardy?

“Based on our analysis of the star’s magnetic activity, we determined the star has a rotation period that is three times that of the orbital period for ‘planet b.’  Theoretical simulations have predicted—and subsequent observations have proven—that a star can create Doppler signals at integer fractions of its rotation period (that is, one half, one third, etc).  Furthermore, the measurements of the star’s magnetic activity are correlated with the predicted Doppler shifts caused by planet b.  In such cases, the simplest explanation for the observations is that the Doppler periodicity is caused by the star’s activity, rather than a planet whose signal coincidentally matches the star’s activity.”

Q-Is it possible to discern the starspot cycle that we’re seeing on Kapteyn’s Star?

“We infer the presence of active magnetic regions—possibly starspots—on the stellar surface through the variability of certain magnetically-sensitive absorption lines in the star’s spectrum. Previous observations suggest that the star’s brightness is relatively constant, so any starspots must be fairly small or not especially dark. It is possible that a space-based photometer such as K2 or TESS might see starspots.”

Q-Are future observations planned?

“Honestly, I don’t know.  My paper used data from previous observing programs that are now available in public archives.  I certainly think additional data would be quite valuable for Kapteyn’s Star.  Given that Kapteyn’s Star is somewhat special, being the closest halo star and one of the oldest nearby stars, I suspect someone will take more observations.”

This discovery is significant either way. An ancient super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of a nearby star has had lots of time to get the engine of evolution underway, more than twice the span of the history of life on Earth. But if Kapteyn-b is merely a transitory flicker in the data, it also serves as a good case study in perils of exoplanet hunting as well.

There’s still a good deal of controversy, however, surrounding the existence of planets orbiting Kapteyn’s Star. One very recent paper released just last week on June 30th titled No Evidence for Activity Correlations in the Radial Velocities of Kapteyn’s Star is safely in the ‘pro- Kapteyn-b’ camp.

Discovered due to its high (8 arc seconds per year) proper motion by Dutch astronomer Jacobus Kapteyn in 1898, Kapteyn’s Star is the closest known halo star to our solar system. It’s thought that Kapteyn’s Star might be associated with the large globular cluster Omega Centauri, which itself is thought to be the remnant of a dwarf galaxy gobbled up by our own Milky Way in the distant past.

The location of Kapteyn's Star in the constellation Pictor. Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The location of Kapteyn’s Star in the constellation Pictor. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Kapteyn-b also made our list of red dwarf stars visible in backyard telescopes.

And Kapteyn-b wouldn’t be the first exoplanet detection that turned out to be spurious, as the existence of the exoplanet Alpha Centuari Bb announced in 2012 has been called into question as well.

It’s a brave new world on exoplanet science out there for sure, and for now, the worlds of Kapteyn’s Star will remain a mystery.

Kepler ‘K2’ Finds First Exoplanet, A ‘Super-Earth’, While Surfing Sun’s Pressure Wave For Control

It’s alive! NASA’s Kepler space telescope had to stop planet-hunting during Earth’s northern-hemisphere summer 2013 when a second of its four pointing devices (reaction wheels) failed. But using a new technique that takes advantage of the solar wind, Kepler has found its first exoplanet since the K2 mission was publicly proposed in November 2013.

And despite a loss of pointing precision, Kepler’s find was a smaller planet — a super-Earth! It’s likely a water world or a rocky core shrouded in a thick, Neptune-like atmosphere. Called HIP 116454b, it’s 2.5 times the size of Earth and a whopping 12 times the mass. It circles its dwarf star quickly, every 9.1 days, and is about 180 light-years from Earth.

“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries. Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies,” stated lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Kepler ferrets out exoplanets from their parent stars while watching for transits — when a world passes across the face of its parent sun. This is easiest to find on huge planets that are orbiting dim stars, such as red dwarfs. The smaller the planet and/or brighter the star, the more difficult it is to view the tiny shadow.

Infographic showing how the Kepler space telescope continued searching for planets despite two busted reaction wheels. Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel
Infographic showing how the Kepler space telescope continued searching for planets despite two busted reaction wheels. Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

The telescope needs at least three reaction wheels to point consistently in space, which it did for four years, gazing at the Cygnus constellation. (And there’s still a lot of data to come from that mission, including the follow-up to a bonanza where Kepler detected hundreds of new exoplanets using a new technique for multiple-planet systems.)

But now, Kepler needs an extra hand to do so. Without a mechanic handy to send out to telescope’s orbit around the Sun, scientists decided instead to use sunlight pressure as a sort of “virtual” reaction wheel. The K2 mission underwent several tests and was approved budgetarily in May, through 2016.

The drawback is Kepler needs to change positions every 83 days since the Sun eventually gets in the telescope’s viewfinder; also, there are losses in precision compared to the original mission. The benefit is it can also observe objects such as supernovae and star clusters.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

“Due to Kepler’s reduced pointing capabilities, extracting useful data requires sophisticated computer analysis,” CFA added in a statement. “Vanderburg and his colleagues developed specialized software to correct for spacecraft movements, achieving about half the photometric precision of the original Kepler mission.”

That said, the first nine-day test with K2 yielded one planetary transit that was confirmed with measurements of the star’s “wobble” as the planet tugged on it, using the HARPS-North spectrograph on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. A small Canadian satellite called MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of STars) also found transits, albeit weakly.

A paper based on the research will appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

Alien Planet’s Clear Weather Could Show Way To ‘Super-Earth’ Atmospheres

In an encouraging find for habitability researchers, astronomers have detected molecules on the smallest planet ever — a Neptune-sized planet about 120 light-years from Earth. The team behind the discovery says this means the dream of understanding the atmospheres on planets even closer to size of Earth is getting closer.

“The work we are doing now is important for future studies of super-Earths and even smaller planets, because we want to be able to pick out in advance the planets with clear atmospheres that will let us detect molecules,” stated co-author Heather Knutson, of the California Institute of Technology.

This particular world is not life-friendly as we understand it, however. Called HAT-P-11b, it’s not only a gas giant but also a planet that orbits extremely close to its star — making one circle every five days. And unusually among planets of its size that were previously probed by astronomers, it appears to have clear skies.

The team examined the world using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, looking at the planet as it passed across the face of its star. The team compared the signature of elements observed when the planet was in front of the star and when it was not, and discovered telltale signs of water vapor in its atmosphere.

Artist's conception of what the weather may look like on HAT-P-11b, a Neptune-sized exoplanet. The upper atmosphere (right) appears clear while the lower atmosphere may host clouds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of what the weather may look like on HAT-P-11b, a Neptune-sized exoplanet. The upper atmosphere (right) appears clear while the lower atmosphere may host clouds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While other planets outside our solar system are known to have water vapor, the ones previously examined are much larger. Jupiter-sized planets are much easier to examine not only because they are larger, but their atmospheres puff up more (making them more visible from Earth.)

To confirm the water vapor was not a false signal from sunspots on the parent star (which also can contain it), the team used the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes to confirm the information. (Kepler’s single field of view around the constellation Cygnus, which it had been peering at for about four years, happily included the zone where HAT-P-11b was orbiting.) The infrared information from Spitzer and the visible-light data from Kepler both showed the sunspots were too hot for water vapor.

Further, the discovery shows there were no clouds in the way of the observations — a first for planets of that size. The team also hopes that super-Earths could have clear skies, allowing astronomers to analyze their atmospheres.

“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” stated lead author Jonathan Fraine, of the University of Maryland, College Park. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.”

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: NASA