In February of 2017, the scientific community rejoiced as NASA announced that a nearby star (TRAPPIST-1) had a system of no less than seven rocky planets! Since that time, astronomers have conducted all kinds of follow-up observations and studies in the hopes of learning more about these exoplanets. In particular, they have been attempting to learn if any of the planets located in the stars Habitable Zone (HZ) could actually be habitable.
Many of these studies have been concerned with whether or not the TRAPPIST-1 planets have sufficient water on their surfaces. But just as important is the question of whether or not any have viable atmospheres. In a recent study that provides an overview of all observations to date on TRAPPIST-1 planets, a team found that depending on the planet in question, they are likely to have good atmospheres, if any at all.
There’s a type of exoplanet that astronomers sometimes refer to as cotton candy planets, or super-puffs. They’re mysterious, because their masses don’t match up with their extremely large radii. The two characteristics imply a planet with an extremely low density.
In our Solar System, there’s nothing like them, and finding them in distant solar systems has been puzzling. Now a pair of astronomers might have figured it out.
The CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) spacecraft just opened the cover on its telescope. The spacecraft was launched on December 18th 2019 and has so far performed flawlessly. In one or two weeks we could get our first images from the instrument.
Do you wonder how astronomers find all those exoplanets orbiting stars in distant solar systems?
Mostly they use the transit method. When a planet travels in between its star and an observer, the light from the star dims. That’s called a transit. If astronomers watch a planet transit its star a few times, they can confirm its orbital period. They can also start to understand other things about the planet, like its mass and density.
The planet Mercury just transited the Sun, giving us all an up close look at transits.
Thanks in large part to the Kepler Space Telescope, the number of confirmed extrasolar planets has grown exponentially in the last decade. And with next-generation missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) already in orbit, more candidates and confirmed planets are being discovered all the time – many of them new and exciting ones too!
In fact, one of TESS’ most recent discoveries includes a three-planet system that orbits a star (L 98-59) located roughly 35 light-years from Earth. One of the planets, known as L 98-59b, is between the sizes of Earth and Mars – effectively making it the smallest exoplanet discovered by TESS to date. The discovery also highlights the sophistication of TESS and doubles the number of small exoplanets that are considered worthy of follow-up studies.
Welcome back to the latest installment in our series on Exoplanet-hunting methods. Today we begin with the very difficult, but very promising method known as Direct Imaging.
In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown by leaps and bounds. As of October 4th, 2018, a total of 3,869 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,887 planetary systems, with 638 systems hosting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to the limitations astronomers have been forced to contend with, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect methods.
So far, only a handful of planets have been discovered by being imaged as they orbited their stars (aka. Direct Imaging). While challenging compared to indirect methods, this method is the most promising when it comes to characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets. So far, 100 planets have been confirmed in 82 planetary systems using this method, and many more are expected to be found in the near future.
The mission recently started science operations (on July 25th, 2018) and is expected to transmit its first collection of data back to Earth this month. But before that, the planet-hunting telescope took a series of images that featured a recently-discovered comet known as C/2018 N1. These images helped demonstrate the satellite’s ability to collect images over a broad region of the sky – which will be critical when it comes to finding exoplanets.
As the name would suggest, the TESS mission is designed to search for planets around distant stars using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry). For this method, distant stars are monitored for periodic dips in brightness, which are indications that a planet is passing in front of the star (aka. transiting) relative to the observer. From these dips, astronomers are able to estimate a planet’s size and orbital period.
This method remains the most effective and popular means for finding exoplanets, accounting for 2,951 of the 3,774 confirmed discoveries made to date. To test its instruments before it began science operations, TESS took images of C/2018 N1 over a short period near the end of the mission’s commissioning phase – which occurred over the course of 17 hours on July 25th.
The comet that it managed to capture, C/2018 N1, was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite on June 29th. This comet is located about 48 million km (29 million mi) from Earth in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus. In these pictures, which were compiled into a video (shown below), the comet is seen as a bright dot against a background of stars and other objects.
As it moves across the frame (from right to left), the comet’s tail can be seen extending to the top of the frame, and gradually changes direction as the comet glides across the field of view. The images also reveal a considerable amount of astronomical activity in the background. For instance, image processing causes the stars to shift between white and black, which highlights some variable stars visible in the images.
These are stars that change brightness as a result of pulsation, rapid rotation, or being eclipsed by a binary neighbor. A number of Solar System asteroids are also visible as small white dots moving across the field of view. Last, but not least, some stray light that was reflected from Mars is also visible near the end of the video. This light appears as a faint broad arc that moves across the middle section of the frame, from left to right.
This effect was due to the fact that Mars was at its brightest at the time since it was near opposition (i.e. at the closest point in its orbit to Earth). These images showcase the capabilities of the TESS mission, even though they only show a fraction of the instrument’s active field of view.
In the coming weeks and months, TESS science team will continue to fine-tune the spacecraft’s performance as it searches for extra-solar planets. As noted, it is expected that TESS will find thousands of planets in our galaxy, vastly increasing our knowledge of exoplanets and the kinds of worlds that exist beyond our Solar System!
And be sure to check out the video of the images TESS captured, courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:
The James Webb Space Telescope is like the party of the century that keeps getting postponed. Due to its sheer complexity and some anomalous readings that were detected during vibration testing, the launch date of this telescope has been pushed back many times – it is currently expected to launch sometime in 2021. But for obvious reasons, NASA remains committed to seeing this mission through.
Once deployed, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope in operation, and its advanced suite of instruments will reveal things about the Universe that have never before been seen. Among these are the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, which will initially consist of gas giants. In so doing, the JWST will refine the search for habitable planets, and eventually begin examining some potential candidates.
The JWST will be doing this in conjunction with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which deployed to space back in April of 2018. As the name suggests, TESS will be searching for planets using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), where stars are monitored for periodic dips in brightness – which are caused by a planet passing in front of them relative to the observer.
Some of Webb’s first observations will be conducted through the Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science program – a transiting exoplanet planet team at Webb’s science operation center. This team is planning on conducting three different types of observations that will provide new scientific knowledge and a better understanding of Webb’s science instruments.
As Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, a co-principal investigator on the transiting exoplanet project, explained in a NASA press release:
“We have two main goals. The first is to get transiting exoplanet datasets from Webb to the astronomical community as soon as possible. The second is to do some great science so that astronomers and the public can see how powerful this observatory is.”
As Natalie Batalha of NASA Ames Research Center, the project’s principal investigator, added:
“Our team’s goal is to provide critical knowledge and insights to the astronomical community that will help to catalyze exoplanet research and make the best use of Webb in the limited time we have available.”
For their first observation, the JWST will be responsible for characterizing a planet’s atmosphere by examining the light that passes through it. This happens whenever a planet transits in front of a star, and the way light is absorbed at different wavelengths provides clues as to the atmosphere’s chemical composition. Unfortunately, existing space telescopes have not had the necessary resolution to scan anything smaller than a gas giant.
The JWST, with its advanced infrared instruments, will examine the light passing through exoplanet atmospheres, split it into a rainbow spectrum, and then infer the atmospheres’ composition based on which sections of light are missing. For these observations, the project team selected WASP-79b, a Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits a star in the Eridanus constellation, roughly 780 light-years from Earth.
The team expects to detect and measure the abundances of water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide in WASP-79b, but is also hoping to find molecules that have not yet been detected in exoplanet atmospheres. For their second observation, the team will be monitoring a “hot Jupiter” known as WASP-43b, a planet which orbits its star with a period of less than 20 hours.
Like all exoplanets that orbit closely to their stars, this gas giant is tidally-locked – where one side is always facing the star. When the planet is in front of the star, astronomers are only able to see its cooler backside; but as it orbits, the hot day-side slowly comes into view. By observing this planet for the entirety of its orbit, astronomers will be able to observe those variations (known as a phase curve) and use the data to map the planet’s temperature, clouds, and atmospheric chemistry.
This data will allow them to sample the atmosphere to different depths and obtain a more complete picture of the planet’s internal structure. As Bean indicated:
“We have already seen dramatic and unexpected variations for this planet with Hubble and Spitzer. With Webb we will reveal these variations in significantly greater detail to understand the physical processes that are responsible.”
For their third observation, the team will be attempting to observe a transiting planet directly. This is very challenging, seeing as how the star’s light is much brighter and therefore obscures the faint light being reflected off the planet’s atmosphere. One method for addressing this is to measure the light coming from a star when the planet is visible, and again when it disappears behind the star.
By comparing the two measurements, astronomers can calculate how much light is coming from the planet alone. This technique works best for very hot planets that glow brightly in infrared light, which is why they selected WASP-18b for this observation – a hot Jupiter that reaches temperatures of around 2,900 K (2627 °C; 4,800 °F). In the process, they hope to determine the composition of the planet’s smothering stratosphere.
In the end, these observations will help test the abilities of the JWST and calibrate its instruments. The ultimate goal will be to examine the atmospheres of potentially-habitable exoplanets, which in this case will include rocky (aka. “Earth-like”) planets that orbit low mass, dimmer red dwarf stars. In addition to being the most common star in our galaxy, red dwarfs are also believed to be the most likely place to find Earth-like planets.
“TESS should locate more than a dozen planets orbiting in the habitable zones of red dwarfs, a few of which might actually be habitable. We want to learn whether those planets have atmospheres and Webb will be the one to tell us. The results will go a long way towards answering the question of whether conditions favorable to life are common in our galaxy.”
The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory once deployed, and will help astronomers to solve mysteries in our Solar System, study exoplanets, and observe the very earliest periods of the Universe to determine how its large-scale structure evolved over time. For this reason, its understandable why NASA is asking that the astronomical community be patient until they are sure it will deploy successfully.
When the payoff is nothing short of ground-breaking discoveries, it’s only fair that we be willing to wait. In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about how scientists study exoplanet atmospheres, courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute:
Since its deployment in March of 2009, the Kepler space telescope has been a boon for exoplanet-hunters. As of March 8th, 2018, a total of 3,743 exoplanets have been confirmed, 2,649 of which were discovered by Kepler alone. At the same time, the telescope has suffered its share of technical challenges. These include the failure of two reaction wheels, which severely hampered the telescope’s ability to conduct its original mission.
Nevertheless, the Kepler team was able to return the telescope to a stable configuration by using small amounts of thruster fuel to compensate for the failed reaction wheels. Unfortunately, after almost four years conducting its K2 observation campaign, the Kepler telescope is now running out fuel. Based on its remaining fuel and rate of consumption, NASA estimates that the telescope’s mission will end in a few months.
For years, the Kepler space telescope has been locating planets around distant stars using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry). This consists of monitors stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are caused by a planet passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting). Of all the methods used to hunt for exoplanets, the Transit Method is considered the most reliable, accounting for a total of 2900 discoveries.
Naturally, this news comes as a disappointment to astronomers and exoplanet enthusiasts. But before anyone starts lamenting the situation, they should keep some things in mind. For one, the Kepler mission has managed to last longer than anyone expected. Ever since the K2 campaign began, the telescope has been required to shift its field of view about every three months to conduct a new observation campaign.
Based on their original estimates, the Kepler team believed they had enough fuel to conduct 10 more campaigns. However, the mission has already completed 16 campaigns and the team just began their 17th. As Charlie Sobeck, a system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“Our current estimates are that Kepler’s tank will run dry within several months – but we’ve been surprised by its performance before! So, while we anticipate flight operations ending soon, we are prepared to continue as long as the fuel allows. The Kepler team is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can’t aim the spacecraft for data transfer. We even have plans to take some final calibration data with the last bit of fuel, if the opportunity presents itself.”
So while the mission is due to end soon, the science team hopes to gather as much scientific data as possible and beam it back to Earth before then. They also hope to gather some final calibration data using the telescope’s last bit of fuel, should the opportunity present itself. And since they cannot refuel the spacecraft, they hope to stop collecting data so they can use their last bit of fuel to point the spacecraft back towards Earth and bring it home.
“Without a gas gauge, we have been monitoring the spacecraft for warning signs of low fuel— such as a drop in the fuel tank’s pressure and changes in the performance of the thrusters,” said Sobeck. “But in the end, we only have an estimate – not precise knowledge. Taking these measurements helps us decide how long we can comfortably keep collecting scientific data.”
This has been standard practice for many NASA missions, where enough fuel has been reserved to conduct one last maneuver. For example, the Cassini mission had to reserve fuel in order to descend into Saturn’s atmosphere so it would avoid colliding with one of its moons and contaminating a potentially life-bearing environment. Satellites also regularly conduct final maneuvers to ensure they don’t crash into other satellites or fall to Earth.
While deep-space missions like Kepler are in no danger of crashing to Earth or contaminating a sensitive environment, this final maneuver is designed to ensure that the science team can squeeze every last drop of data from the spacecraft. So before the mission wraps up, we can expect that this venerated planet-hunter will have some final surprises for us!
In the coming years, next-generation telescopes will be taking to space to pick up where Kepler and other space telescopes left off. These include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite(TESS), which will be conducting Transit surveys shortly after it launches in April of 2018. By 2019, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will also take to space and use its powerful infrared instruments to aid in the hunt for exoplanets.
So while we will soon be saying goodbye to the Kepler mission, its legacy will live on. In truth, the days of exoplanet discovery are just getting started!