How many exoplanets are there? Not that long ago, we didn’t know if there were any. Then we detected a few around pulsars. Then the Kepler spacecraft was launched and it discovered a couple thousand more. Now NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is operational, and a new study predicts its findings.
It’s been quite a tumultuous time for space telescopes lately! Less than a month ago, the Hubble Space Telescope went into safe mode after experiencing a mechanical failure with one of its gyroscopes (which has since been remedied). Shortly thereafter, the Chandra X-ray telescope went into safe mode as well, and for similar reasons. After three days, it’s operations team managed to get it back in working order as well.
And now, after nine years of service, NASA has officially announced that the Kepler Space Telescope will be retiring. With no fuel remaining to conduct its science observations, NASA has decided to leave the telescope in its current safe orbit (well away from Earth). Far from being a sad occasion, Kepler’s retirement is an opportunity to reflect upon the immense accomplishments of this telescope and how it revolutionized the study of exoplanets.
On April 18th, 2018, NASA deployed the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a next-generation exoplanet hunting telescope that is expected to find thousands of planets in the coming years. Alongside other next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), TESS will effectively pick up where space telescopes like Hubble and Kepler left off.
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:
Further Reading: NASA
The Kepler space telescope has had a relatively brief but distinguished career of service with NASA. Having launched in 2009, the space telescope has spent the past nine years observing distant stars for signs of planetary transits (i.e. the Transit Method). In that time, it has been responsible for the detection of 2,650 confirmed exoplanets, which constitutes the majority of the more than 38oo planets discovered so far.
Earlier this week, the Kepler team was notified that the space telescope’s fuel tank is running very low. NASA responded by placing the spacecraft in hibernation in preparation for a download of its scientific data, which it collected during its latest observation campaign. Once the data is downloaded, the team expects to start its last observation campaign using whatever fuel it has left.
Since 2013, Kepler has been conducting its “Second Light” (aka. K2) campaign, where the telescope has continued conducting observations despite the loss of two of its reaction wheels. Since May 12th, 2018, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, which has consisted of it studying a patch of sky in the vicinity of the Cancer constellation – which it previously studied in 2015.
In order to send the data back home, the spacecraft will point is large antenna back towards Earth and transmit it via the Deep Space Network. However, the DSN is responsible for transmitting data from multiple missions and time needs to be allotted in advance. Kepler is scheduled to send data from its 18th campaign back in August, and will remain in a stable orbit and safe mode in order to conserve fuel until then.
On August 2nd, the Kepler team will command the spacecraft to awaken and will maneuver the craft to the correct orientation to transmit the data. If all goes well, they will begin Kepler’s 19th observation campaign on August 6th with what fuel the spacecraft still has. At present, NASA expects that the spacecraft will run out of fuel in the next few months.
However, even after the Kepler mission ends, scientists and engineers will continue to mine the data that has already been sent back for discoveries. According to a recent study by an international team of scientists, 24 new exoplanets were discovered using data from the 10th observation campaign, which has brought the total number of Kepler discoveries to 2,650 confirmed exoplanets.
In the coming years, many more exoplanet discoveries are anticipated as the next-generation of space telescopes begin collecting their first light or are deployed to space. These include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched this past April, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – which is currently scheduled to launch sometime in 2021.
However, it will be many years before any mission can rival the accomplishments and contributions made by Kepler! Long after she is retired, her legacy will live on in the form of her discoveries.
Further Reading: NASA
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!
Stay tuned for updates from the Kepler and K2 Science Center.
Further Reading: NASA
Welcome all to the first in our series on Exoplanet-hunting methods. Today we begin with the most popular and widely-used, known as the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry).
For centuries, astronomers have speculated about the existence of planets beyond our Solar System. After all, with between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, it seemed unlikely that ours was the only one to have a system of planets. But it has only been within the past few decades that astronomers have confirmed the existence of extra-solar planets (aka. exoplanets).
Astronomers use various methods to confirm the existence of exoplanets, most of which are indirect in nature. Of these, the most widely-used and effective to date has been Transit Photometry, a method that measures the light curve of distant stars for periodic dips in brightness. These are the result of exoplanets passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer.
These changes in brightness are characterized by very small dips and for fixed periods of time, usually in the vicinity of 1/10,000th of the star’s overall brightness and only for a matter of hours. These changes are also periodic, causing the same dips in brightness each time and for the same amount of time. Based on the extent to which stars dim, astronomers are also able to obtain vital information about exoplanets.
For all of these reasons, Transit Photometry is considered a very robust and reliable method of exoplanet detection. Of the 3,526 extra-solar planets that have been confirmed to date, the transit method has accounted for 2,771 discoveries – which is more than all the other methods combined.
One of the greatest advantages of Transit Photometry is the way it can provide accurate constraints on the size of detected planets. Obviously, this is based on the extent to which a star’s light curve changes as a result of a transit. Whereas a small planet will cause a subtle change in brightness, a larger planet will cause a more noticeable change.
When combined with the Radial Velocity method (which can determine the planet’s mass) one can determine the density of the planet. From this, astronomers are able to assess a planet’s physical structure and composition – i.e. determining if it is a gas giant or rocky planet. The planets that have been studied using both of these methods are by far the best-characterized of all known exoplanets.
In addition to revealing the diameter of planets, Transit Photometry can allow for a planet’s atmosphere to be investigated through spectroscopy. As light from the star passes through the planet’s atmosphere, the resulting spectra can be analyzed to determine what elements are present, thus providing clues as to the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
Last, but not least, the transit method can also reveal things about a planet’s temperature and radiation based on secondary eclipses (when the planet passes behind it’s sun). On this occasion, astronomers measure the star’s photometric intensity and then subtract it from measurements of the star’s intensity before the secondary eclipse. This allows for measurements of the planet’s temperature and can even determine the presence of clouds formations in the planet’s atmosphere.
Transit Photometry also suffers from a few major drawbacks. For one, planetary transits are observable only when the planet’s orbit happens to be perfectly aligned with the astronomers’ line of sight. The probability of a planet’s orbit coinciding with an observer’s vantage point is equivalent to the ratio of the diameter of the star to the diameter of the orbit.
Only about 10% of planets with short orbital periods experience such an alignment, and this decreases for planets with longer orbital periods. As a result, this method cannot guarantee that a particular star being observed does indeed host any planets. For this reason, the transit method is most effective when surveying thousands or hundreds of thousands of stars at a time.
It also suffers from a substantial rate of false positives; in some cases, as high as 40% in single-planet systems (based on a 2012 study of the Kepler mission). This necessitates that follow-up observations be conducted, often relying on another method. However, the rate of false positives drops off for stars where multiple candidates have been detected.
While transits can reveal much about a planet’s diameter, they cannot place accurate constraints on a planet’s mass. For this, the Radial Velocity method (as noted earlier) is the most reliable, where astronomers look for signs of “wobble” in a star’s orbit to the measure the gravitational forces acting on them (which are caused by planets).
In short, the transit method has some limitations and is most effective when paired with other methods. Nevertheless, it remains the most widely-used means of “primary detection” – detecting candidates which are later confirmed using a different method – and is responsible for more exoplanet discoveries than all other methods combined.
Examples of Transit Photometry Surveys:
Transit Photometry is performed by multiple Earth-based and space-based observatories around the world. The majority, however, are Earth-based, and rely on existing telescopes combined with state-of-the-art photometers. Examples include the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets (SuperWASP) survey, an international exoplanet-hunting survey that relies on the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory and the South African Astronomical Observatory.
There’s also the Hungarian Automated Telescope Network (HATNet), which consists of six small, fully-automated telescopes and is maintained by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The MEarth Project is another, a National Science Foundation-funded robotic observatory that combines the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) in Arizona with the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.
Then there’s the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT), an astronomical survey jointly administered by Ohio State University, Vanderbilt University, Lehigh University, and the South African Astronomical Society (SAAO). This survey consists of two telescopes, the Winer Observatory in southeastern Arizona and the Sutherland Astronomical Observation Station in South Africa.
In terms of space-based observatories, the most notable example is NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. During its initial mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013, Kepler detected 4,496 planetary candidates and confirmed the existence of 2,337 exoplanets. In November of 2013, after the failure of two of its reaction wheels, the telescope began its K2 mission, during which time an additional 515 planets have been detected and 178 have been confirmed.
The Hubble Space Telescope also conducted transit surveys during its many years in orbit. For instance, the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS) – which took place in 2006 – consisted of Hubble observing 180,000 stars in the central bulge of the Milky Way Galaxy. This survey revealed the existence of 16 additional exoplanets.
Other examples include the ESA’s COnvection ROtation et Transits planétaires (COROT) – in English “Convection rotation and planetary transits” – which operated from 2006 to 2012. Then there’s the ESA’s Gaia mission, which launched in 2013 with the purpose of creating the largest 3D catalog ever made, consisting of over 1 billion astronomical objects.
In March of 2018, the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to be launched into orbit. Using the transit method, TESS will detect exoplanets and also select targets for further study by the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT), which will be deployed in 2019. Between these two missions, the confirmation and characterization or many thousands of exoplanets is anticipated.
Thanks to improvements in terms of technology and methodology, exoplanet discovery has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. With thousands of exoplanets confirmed, the focus has gradually shifted towards the characterizing of these planets to learn more about their atmospheres and conditions on their surface.
In the coming decades, thanks in part to the deployment of new missions, some very profound discoveries are expected to be made!
We have many interesting articles about exoplanet-hunting here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Radial Velocity Method?
The Fermi Paradox essentially states that given the age of the Universe, and the sheer number of stars in it, there really ought to be evidence of intelligent life out there. This argument is based in part on the fact that there is a large gap between the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years) and the age of our Solar System (4.5 billion years ago). Surely, in that intervening 9.3 billion years, life has had plenty of time to evolve in other star system!
However, new theoretical work performed by researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) offers a different take on Fermi’s Paradox. According to their study, which will appear soon in the Journal of Cosmology and Astrophysics, they argue that life as we know it may have been a bit premature to the whole “intelligence party”, at least from a cosmological perspective.
For the sake of their study, titled “Relative Likelihood for Life as a Function of Cosmic Time“, the team calculated the likelihood of Earth-like planets forming within our Universe, starting from when the first stars formed (30 million years after the Big Bang) and continuing into the distant future. What they found was, barring any unforeseen restrictions, life as we know is determined by the mass of a star.
As Avi Loeb – a scientist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the lead author on the paper – explained in a CfA press release:
“If you ask, ‘When is life most likely to emerge?’ you might naively say, ‘Now’. But we find that the chance of life grows much higher in the distant future. So then you may ask, why aren’t we living in the future next to a low-mass star? One possibility is we’re premature. Another possibility is that the environment around a low-mass star is hazardous to life.”
Essentially, higher-mass stars – i.e. those that have three or more times the mass of our Sun – have a shorter life-span, which means that they will likely die before life has a chance to form on a planet orbiting them. Lower mass stars, which are a class of red dwarfs that have 0.1 Solar masses, have much longer lifespans, with some astrophysical models indicating that they may stay in their main sequence phase for six to twelve trillion years.
In other words, the probability of life existing in our Universe grows over time. For the sake of their study, Loeb and his colleagues concluded that certain red dwarfs that are in their main sequence today could likely live for another 10 trillion years. By this time, the probability that life will have developed on some of their planets increased by a factor of 1000 over what it is today.
Hence, we could say that life as we know it – i.e. carbon-based organisms that evolved on Earth over the course of billions of years – emerged early in terms of cosmic history, rather than late. This might explain why it is that we haven’t found any evidence of intelligent life yet – maybe it just hasn’t had enough time to emerge. It’s certainly a better prospect than the possibility that they were killed off during the early phases of their star’s evolution (as other researchers have suggested).
However, as Dr. Loeb explained, the team also determined that there was an alternative to this hypothesis, which has to do with the particular risks faced by plants that form around low-mass stars. For instance, low-mass stars emit strong flares of UV radiation in their early life, which could adversely effect any planet orbiting it by stripping away its atmosphere.
So, in addition to life being premature on Earth, its possible that life on other planets is being wiped out before they have a chance to reach maturity. Ultimately, the only way to know for sure which possibility is correct is to continue hunting for Earth-like exoplanets and conducting spectroscopic searches of their atmospheres for biosignatures.
In this respect, missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope will have their work cut out for them! Loeb also published a similar study titled “On the Habitability of Our Universe” as a preface for an upcoming book on the subject.
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. It’s scientists are dedicating to studying the origin, evolution and future of the universe.
For countless generations, people have looked up at the stars and wondered if life exists somewhere out there, perhaps on planets much like ours. But it has only been in recent decades that we have been able to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in other star systems. In fact, between 1988 and April 20th of 2016, astronomers have been able to account for the existence of 2108 planets in 1350 different star systems, including 511 multiple planetary systems.
Most of these discoveries have taken place within just the past three years, thanks to improvements in our detection methods, and the deployment of the Kepler space observatory in 2009. Looking ahead, astronomers hope to improve on these methods even further with the introduction of the Starshade, a giant space structure designed to block the glare of stars, thus making it easier to find planets – and perhaps another Earth!
We hear about discoveries of exoplanets every day. So how long will it take us to find another planet like Earth?
Back in the olden days, astronomers could only guess if there were planets orbiting other stars.
These were the days when we had to wait at the bank to pay our bills, nobody carried computers in their pockets and those computers gave direct connections to everyone else’s pockets because pocket connectivity is highly important, school was uphill both ways, the number 6 was brand new, we recorded images on thin sheets of transparent plastic, 5 bees were worth a quarter and I had an onion tied to my belt, as was the style at the time.
With the discovery of a mega Jupiter-sized world orbiting the star 51 Pegasi in 1995, the floodgates opened up. In the years that followed, dozens more planets were discovered. Then hundreds, and now, we know about thousands orbiting other stars.
The bad news is we can’t get to any of them. The good news is most of these worlds suck. You don’t want any part of them. For starters their wifi is terrible.
Consider Kepler-70b. This world orbits its star 4 times in a 24 hour period. This means it’s super close, and a great place to really quickly win all the human torch cosplay competitions. The surface temperature is a completely unreasonable 7200 Kelvin, hotter than the surface temperature of the Sun.
There’s the planets orbiting pulsar PSR B1257+12, a millisecond pulsar in the constellation of Virgo. As they whip around their exotic host, they’re bathed in intense radiation. Which is generally considered bad for creatures who need functioning organs.
Perhaps HD 106906 b, orbiting its star 650 times more distantly than we orbit the Sun. You’d spend every second of your short life on that planet inventing new words for cold. And then you’d die. Cold.
Imagine a world that orbits a star like our Sun. A world made of about an Earth’s worth of rocky material that you could stand on, at just the right distance from its star that water can exist as a liquid.
This is what astronomers search for, the tri-wizard cup of extrasolar planetary research. Earth 2? Terra Nova? The Gaia part le deux.
Here’s the exciting part. Astronomers have found each of these characteristics in a planet, but never all together. They’ve found plenty of stars similar to our Sun, with planets orbiting them. In fact, the star HD 10180 is incredibly similar to the Sun, and astronomers have discovered 9 planets orbiting it so far. Which does have a familiar ring to it. No word so far on which ones are about to be demoted to dwarf planets.
They’ve found planets roughly the same mass as the Earth. Kepler-89, with 98% the mass of the Earth. So close! Sadly, it’s way too close to its parent hydrogen furnace to be habitable.
They’ve found planets in the habitable zone. Here on Earth, the global average temperature is -18 degrees C. Sounds cold, but the wintery nights in Antarctica absolutely wreck our GPA.
The closest analog discovered is Kepler-22b, with a global average temperature of -11C. So, it should feel downright balmy. Except, it’s about 2.4 times bigger than Earth and orbits a nasty red dwarf star.
Astronomers have even matched up two criteria at the same time. Earth-sized world orbiting around a Sun-like star, but it’s hellishly hot. Wrong flavor star but with the right temperature and size, it’s a veritable tic tac toe board of near wins.
So far, there hasn’t been a single extrasolar planet discovered that meets all three criteria. An Earth-sized world, orbiting a Sun-like star inside the habitable zone where liquid water could be present.
Astronomers were hoping that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft would have been the first to discover Earth 2.0. It had already turned up thousands of planets, including many of the ones I’ve already mentioned.
Sadly, just a few years into the mission, it lost too many reaction wheels, which allow the spacecraft to change direction. It wasn’t able to make enough observations to help confirm a true Earth 2.0. Kepler is still searching for planets, but with a reduced ability to point, it’s only looking at red dwarf stars.
Don’t worry, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will launch in 2017, and will survey a region of the sky 400 times larger than Kepler did. It should turn up thousands of planets, Earth-sized and larger.
Once we actually find New Terra, things get really interesting. Astronomers will search those planets for life. I know it sounds almost impossible to see life from this distance, but astronomers know that if they can analyze the atmosphere of these worlds, they can detect life flourishing there.
They might even be able to detect the pollution from their alien cars and heavy industry, contributing to their CO2 levels, and learn we’re not so different after all. Even if they’re icky bug people.
At the time I’m recording this video, no analog Earth planet has been discovered so far. But it’s just a matter of time. In the next few decades astronomers are going to find that first Earth 2.0, and then dozens, then hundreds, and even figure out which ones have life on them.
It’s a great time to be alive. Place your bets. Predict the date astronomers announce that we’ll find Earth 2.0. Put your guess into the comments below.
For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.
And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (to over 3000!)
An extrasolar planet, also called an exoplanet, is a planet that orbits a star (i.e. is part of a solar system) other than our own. Our Solar System is only one among billions and many of them most likely have their own system of planets. As early as the sixteenth century, there have been astronomers who hypothesized of the existence of extrasolar planets.
The first recorded mention was made by Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, an early supporter of the Copernican theory. In addition to supporting the idea that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun (heliocentrism), he put forward the view that the fixed stars are similar to the Sun and are likewise accompanied by planets.
In the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton made a similar suggestion in the “General Scholium” section which concludes his Principia. Making a comparison to the Sun’s planets, he wrote “And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”
Since Newton’s time, various claims have been made, but which were rejected by the scientific community as false positives. In the 1980’s, some astronomers claimed that they had identified a some extrasolar planets in nearby star systems, but were unable to confirm their existence until years later.
One of the reasons why extrasolar planets are so difficult to detect is because they are even fainter than the stars they orbit. Additionally, these stars give off light that “washes” the planets out – i.e. obscures them from direct observation. As a result, the first discovery was not made until 1992 when astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail – using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – observed several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12.
It was not until 1995 that the first confirmation of an exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star was made. In this case, the planet observed was 51 Pegasi b, a giant planet found in a four-day orbit around the Sun-like star 51 Pegasi (approx 51 light years from our Sun).
Initially, most of the planets detected were gas giants similar to, or larger than, Jupiter – which led to the term “Super-Jupiter” being coined. Far from suggesting that gas giants were more common than rocky (i.e. “Earth-like“) planets, these findings were simply due to the fact that Jupiter-sized planets are simply easier to detect because of their size.
The Kepler Mission:
Named after the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, the Kepler space observatory was launched by NASA on March 7th, 2009 for the purpose of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. As part of NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of relatively low-cost project focused on scientific research, Kepler’s mission is to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way to find evidence of extrasolar planets and estimate how many stars in our galaxy have planetary systems.
Relying on the Transit Method of detection (see below), Kepler’s sole instrument is a photometer that continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view. This data is transmitted back to Earth where it is analyzed by scientists to look for any signs of periodic dimming caused by extrasolar planets transiting (passing) in front of their host star.
The initial planned lifetime of the Kepler mission was 3.5 years, but greater-than-expected results led to the mission being extended. In 2012, the mission was expected to last until 2016, but this changed due to the failure of one the spacecraft’s reaction wheels – which are used for pointing the spacecraft. On May 11, 2013, a second of four reaction wheels failed, disabling the collection of science data and threatening the continuation of the mission.
On August 15, 2013, NASA announced that they had given up trying to fix the two failed reaction wheels and modified the mission accordingly. Rather than scrap Kepler, NASA proposed changing the mission to utilizing Kepler to detect habitable planets around smaller, dimmer red dwarf stars. This proposal, which became known as K2 “Second Light”, was approved on May 16th, 2014.
Since that time, the K2 mission has focused more on brighter stars (such as G- and K-class stars). As of October 13th, 2016, astronomers have confirmed the presence of 3,397 exoplanets and 573 multi-planet systems, the vast majority of which were found using data from Kepler. All told, the space probe has observed over 150,000 stars in the course of its primary and K2 missions.
In November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way. It is estimated that 11 billion of these planets may be orbiting Sun-like stars.
The discovery of exoplanets has also intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life, particularly for those that orbit in the host star’s habitable zone. Also known as the “goldilocks zone“, this is the region of the solar system where conditions are warm enough (but not too warm) so that it is possible for liquid water (and therefore life) to exist on the planet’s surface.
The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, and was first observed on May 12th, 2009, and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.
Prior to the deployment of Kepler, the vast majority of confirmed exoplanets fell into the category of Jupiter-sized or larger. However, as of Sept. 18th, 2015, Kepler has identified 4,696 potential candidates, many of them falling into the categories of Earth-size or “Super-Earth” size. Many of these are located in the habitable zone of their parent stars, and some even around Sun-like stars.
And according to a recent study from NASA Ames Research Center, analysis of the Kepler mission data indicated that about 24% of M-class stars may harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets (i.e. those that are smaller than 1.6 times the radius of Earth’s). Based upon the number of M-class stars in the galaxy, that alone represents about 10 billion potentially habitable, Earth-like worlds.
Meanwhile, analyses of the K2 phase suggests that about one-quarter of the larger stars surveyed may also have Earth-size planet orbiting within their habitable zones. Taken together, the stars observed by Kepler make up about 70% of those found within the Milky Way. So one can estimate that there are literally tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone.
While some exoplanets have been observed directly with telescopes (a process known as “Direct Imaging”), the vast majority have been detected through indirect methods such as the transit method and the radial-velocity method. In the case of the Transit Method, a planet is observed when crossing the path (i.e. transiting) in front of its parent star’s disk.
When this occurs, the observed brightness of the star drops by a small amount, which can be measured and used to determine the size of the planet. The transit method reveals the radius of a planet, and it has the benefit that it sometimes allows a planet’s atmosphere to be investigated through spectroscopy.
However, it also suffers from a substantial rate of false positives, and generally requires that part of the planet’s orbit intersect a line-of-sight between the host star and Earth. As a result, confirmation from another method is usually considered necessary. Nevertheless, it remains the most widely-used means of detection and is responsible for more exoplanet discoveries than all other methods combined. The Kepler telescope uses this method (see above).
The Radial Velocity (or Doppler Method) involves measuring the star’s radial velocity – i.e. the speed with which it moves towards or away from Earth. The is one means of detecting planets because, as planet’s orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence that causes the star itself to move in its own small orbit around the system’s center of mass.
This method has the advantage of being applicable to stars with a wide range of characteristics. However, one of its disadvantages is that it cannot determine a planet’s true mass, but can only set a lower limit on that mass. It remains the second-most effective technique employed by exoplanet hunters.
Other methods include Transit Timing Variation (TTV) and Gravitational Microlensing. The former relies on measuring the variations in the times of transit for one planet to determine the existence of others. This method is effective in determining the existence of multiple transiting planets in one system, but requires that the existence of at least one already be confirmed.
In another form of the method, timing the eclipses in an eclipsing binary star can reveal an outer planet that orbits both stars. As of August 2013, a few planets have been found with this method while numerous more were confirmed.
In the case of Gravitational Microlensing, this refers to the effect a star’s gravitational field can have, acting like a lens to magnify the light of a distance background star. Planets orbiting this star can cause detectable anomalies in the magnification over time, thus indicating their presence. This technique is effective in detecting stars that have wider orbits (1-10 AUs) from Sun-like stars.
Other methods exist, and – alone or in combination – have allowed for the detection and confirmation of thousands of planets. As of May 2015, a total of 1921 planets in 1214 planetary systems have been confirmed, as well as 482 multiple planetary systems.
With the winding down of Kepler’s mission, and so many discoveries made within a short period of time, NASA and other federal space agencies plan to continue in the hunt for extrasolar planets. Proposed NASA missions that will pick up where Kepler has left off include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – which is scheduled for launch sometime in 2017 – and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is to be deployed in October of 2018.
In addition, the European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to continue to map out a significant portion of the Milky Way Galaxy (including exoplanets) using its Gaia spacecraft – which commenced operations in 2013. The Herschel Space Observatory, and ESA mission with participation from NASA, has been in operation since 2009 and is also expected to make many interesting discoveries in the coming years.
There’s a an entire Universe of worlds out there to discover, and we’ve barely scratched the surface!
Universe Today has many interesting articles on exoplanets. Here’s What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?, Focusing On ‘Second-Earth’ Candidates In The Kepler Catalog, New Technique to Find Earth-like Exoplanets, Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!, Planetary Habitability Index Proposes A Less “Earth-Centric” View In Search Of Life, Habitable Earth-Like Exoplanets Might Be Closer Than We Think.
For more information, check out Kepler’s home page at NASA. The Planetary Society’s page on Exoplanets is also interesting, as is NASA Exoplanet Archive – which is maintained with the help of Caltech.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject – Episode 2: In Search of Other Worlds.
- Wikipedia – Exoplanet
- The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
- The Planetary Society – Extrasolar Planets
- NASA Exoplanet Archive