This is Kepler’s Final Image

On October 30th, 2018, after nine years of faithful service, the Kepler Space Telescope was officially retired. With nearly 4000 candidates and 2,662 confirmed exoplanets to its credit, no other telescope has managed to teach us more about the worlds that exist beyond our Solar System. In the coming years, multiple next-generation telescopes will be deployed that will attempt to build on the foundation Kepler built.

And yet, even in retirement, Kepler is still providing us with impressive discoveries. For starters, NASA started the new year by announcing the discovery of several new exoplanets, including a Super-Earth and a Saturn-sized gas giant, as well as an unusually-sized planet that straddles these two categories. On top of that, NASA recently released the “last lighty” image and recordings obtained by Kepler before it ran out of fuel and ended its mission.

Continue reading “This is Kepler’s Final Image”

One of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets Has an Iron Core

In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable.

In accordance with this goal, these studies have focused on whether or not these planets have atmospheres, their compositions and their interiors. One of the latest studies was conducted by two researchers from Columbia University’s Cool Worlds Laboratory, who determined that one of the TRAPPIST-1 planets (TRAPPIST-1e) has a large iron core – a finding which could have implications for this planet’s habitability.

The study – titled “TRAPPIST-1e Has a Large Iron Core“, which recently appeared online – was conducted by Gabrielle Englemenn-Suissa and David Kipping, a senior undergraduate student and an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, respectively. For the sake of their study, Englemenn-Suissa and Kipping took advantage of recent studies that have placed constraints on the masses and radii of the TRAPPIST-1 planets.

These and other studies have benefited from the fact that TRAPPIST-1 is a seven planet system, which makes it ideally suited for exoplanet studies. As Professor Kipping told Universe Today via email:

“It’s a wonderful laboratory for exoplanetary science for three reasons. First, the system has a whopping seven transiting planets. The depth of the transits dictates the size of each planet so we can measure they sizes quite precisely. Second, the planets gravitationally interact with one another leading to variations in the times of the transits and these have been used to infer the masses of each planet, again to impressive precision. Third, the star is very small being a late M-dwarf, about an eighth the size of the Sun, and that means transits appear 8^2 = 64 times deeper than they would if the star were Sun-sized. So we have lots of things working in our favor here.”

Together, Englemann-Suissa and Kipping used mass and radius measurements of the TRAPPIST-1 planets to infer the minimum and maximum Core Radius Fraction (CRF) of each planet. This built on a study they had previously conducted (along with Jingjing Chen, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a member of the Cool Worlds Lab) in which they developed their method for determining a planet’s CRF. As Kipping described the method:

“If you know the mass and radius very precisely, like the TRAPPIST-1 system, you can compare them to that predicted from theoretical interior structure models. The problem is that these models generally comprise of possible four layers, an iron core, a silicate mantle, a water layer and an light volatile envelope (Earth only has the first two, its atmosphere contributes negligible to mass and radius). So four unknowns and two measured quantities is in principle an unconstrained, unsolvable problem.”

This artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Their study also took into account previous work by other scientists who have attempted to place constraints on the chemical composition of the TRAPPIST-1 system. In these studies, the authors assumed that the planets’ chemical compositions were connected to that of the star, which can be measured. However, Englemann-Suissa and Kipping took a more “agnostic” approach and simply considered the boundary conditions of the problem.

“We essentially say that given the mass and radius, there are no models with cores smaller than X that can possibly explain the observed mass and radius,” he said. “The core might be bigger than X but has to be at least X since no theoretical models could explain it otherwise. Here, X would therefore correspond to what we could call the minimum core radius fraction. We then play the same game for the maximum limit.”

What they determined was that the minimum core size of six of the TRAPPIST-1 planets was essentially zero. This means that their compositions could be explained without necessarily having an iron core – for instance, a pure silicate mantle could be all that’s there. But in the case of TRAPPIST-1e, they found that its core must comprise at least 50% of the planet by radius, and at most, 78%.

Compare this to Earth, where the solid inner core of iron and nickel and a liquid outer core of a molten iron-nickel alloy comprise 55% of the planet’s radius. Between the upper and lower limit of TRAPPIST-1e’s CRF, they concluded that it must have a dense core, one which is likely comparable to Earth. This finding could mean that of all the TRAPPIST-1 planets, e is the most “Earth-like” and likely to have a protective magnetosphere.

As Kipping indicated, this could have immense implications when it comes to the hunt for habitable exoplanets, and might push TRAPPIST-1e to the top of the list:

“This gets me more excited about TRAPPIST-1e in particular. That planet is a tad smaller than the Earth, sits right in the habitable-zone and now we know has a large iron core like the Earth. We also know it does not possess a light volatile envelope thanks to other measurements. Further, TRAPPIST-1 appears to be a quieter star than Proxima so I’m much more optimistic about TRAPPIST-1e as potential biosphere than Proxima b right now.”

This is certainly good news in light of recent studies that have indicated that Proxima b is not likely to be habitable. Between its star emitting powerful flares that can be seen by the naked eye to the likelihood that an atmosphere and liquid water would not survive long on its surface, the closest exoplanet to our Solar System is currently not considered a good candidate for finding a habitable world or extra-terrestrial life.

In recent years, Kipping and his colleagues have also dedicated themselves and the Cool Worlds Laboratory to the study of possible exoplanets around Proxima Centauri. Using the Canadian Space Agency’s Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) satellite, Kipping and his colleagues monitored Proxima Centauri in May of 2014 and again in May of 2015 to look for signs of transiting planets.

While the discovery of Proxima b was ultimately made by astronomers at the ESO using the Radial Velocity Method, this campaign was significant in drawing attention to the likelihood of finding terrestrial, potentially-habitable planets around nearby M-type (red dwarf) stars. In the future, Kipping and his team also hope to conduct studies of Proxima b to determine if it has an atmosphere and determine what its CRF could be.

Once again, it appears that one of the many rocky planets orbiting a red dwarf star (and which is closer to Earth) might just be a prime candidate for habitability studies! Future surveys, which will benefit from the introduction of next-generation telescopes (like the James Webb Space Telescope) will no doubt reveal more about this  system and any potentially habitable worlds it has.

Further Reading: arXiv

Weekly Space Hangout: April 4, 2018: Mathew Anderson’s “Habitable Exoplanets”

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Dr. Paul M. Sutter ( / @PaulMattSutter)
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Special Guests:
Mathew Anderson, author and good friend of the Weekly Space Hangout, joins us again this week to discuss his newest book, Habitable Exoplanets: Red Dwarf Systems Like TRAPPIST-1, in which he focuses on exoplanet properties and the chances for habitable planets around Red Dwarf stars.

As he did with his two prior books, Our Cosmic Story and its followup Is Anyone Out There, Mathew will be offering a free e-copy of Habitable Exoplanets: Red Dwarf Systems Like TRAPPIST-1 to viewers of the Weekly Space Hangout, so be sure to tune in this week to find out how to get your free copy of this fascinating book.

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

TRAPPIST-1 Planets Might Actually Have Too Much Water to be Habitable

In February of 2017, the world was astounded to learn that astronomers – using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope – had identified a system of seven rocky exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. As if this wasn’t encouraging enough for exoplanet-enthusiasts, it was also indicated that three of the seven planets orbited within the stars’ circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).

Since that time, this system has been the focus of considerable research and follow-up surveys to determine whether or not any of its planets could be habitable. Intrinsic to these studies has been the question whether or not the planets have liquid water on their surfaces. But according to a new study by a team of American astronomers, the TRAPPIST planets may actually have too much water to support life.

The study, titled “Inward Migration of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets as Inferred From Their Water-Rich Compositions“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Cayman T. Unterborn, a geologist with the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), and included Steven J. Desch, Alejandro Lorenzo (also from the SESE) and Natalie R. Hinkel – an astrophysicists from Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

As noted, multiple studies have been conducted that have sought to determine if any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets could be habitable. And while some have stressed that they would not be able to hold onto their atmospheres for long due to the fact that they orbit a star that is variable and prone to flaring (like all red dwarfs), others studies have found evidence that the system could be rich in water and ideal for life-swapping.

For the sake of their study, the team used data from prior surveys that attempted to place constraints on the mass and diameter of the TRAPPIST-1 planets in order to calculate their densities. Much of this came from a dataset called the Hypatia Catalog (developed by contributing author Hinkel), which merges data from over 150 literary sources to determine the stellar abundances of stars near to our Sun.

Using this data, the team constructed mass-radius-composition models to determine the volatile contents of each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets. What they noticed is that the TRAPPIST planets are traditionally light for rocky bodies, indicating a high content of volatile elements (such as water). On similarly low-density worlds, the volatile component is usually thought to take the form of atmospheric gases.

But as Unterborn explained in a recent SESE news article, the TRAPPIST-1 planets are a different matter:

“[T]he TRAPPIST-1 planets are too small in mass to hold onto enough gas to make up the density deficit. Even if they were able to hold onto the gas, the amount needed to make up the density deficit would make the planet much puffier than we see.”

Artist’s impression of some of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO

Because of this, Unterborn and his colleagues determined that the low-density component in this planetary system had to be water. To determine just how much water was there, the team used a unique software package developed known as ExoPlex. This software uses state-of-the-art mineral physics calculators that allowed the team to combine all of the available information about the TRAPPIST-1 system – not just the mass and radius of individual planets.

What they found was that the inner planets (b and c) were “drier” – having less than 15% water by mass – while the outer planets (f and g) had more than 50% water by mass. By comparison, Earth has only 0.02% water by mass, which means that these worlds have the equivalent of hundreds of Earth-sized oceans in their volume. Basically, this means that the TRAPPIST-1 planets may have too much water to support life. As Hinkel explained:

“We typically think having liquid water on a planet as a way to start life, since life, as we know it on Earth, is composed mostly of water and requires it to live. However, a planet that is a water world, or one that doesn’t have any surface above the water, does not have the important geochemical or elemental cycles that are absolutely necessary for life.”

These findings do not bode well for those who believe that M-type stars are the most likely place to have habitable planets in our galaxy. Not only are red dwarfs the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 75% of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, several that are relatively close to our Solar System have been found to have one or more rocky planets orbiting them.

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Aside from TRAPPIST-1, these include the super-Earths discovered around LHS 1140 and GJ 625, the three rocky planets discovered around Gliese 667, and Proxima b – the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. In addition, a survey conducted using the HARPS spectrograph at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in 2012 indicated that there could be billions of rocky planets orbiting within the habitable zones of red dwarf stars in the Milky Way.

Unfortunately, these latest findings indicate that the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system are not favorable for life. What’s more, there would probably not be enough life on them to produce biosignatures that would be observable in their atmospheres. In addition, the team also concluded that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed father away from their star and migrated inward over time.

This was based on the fact that the ice-rich TRAPPIST-1 planets were far closer to their star’s respective “ice line” than the drier ones. In any solar system, planets that lie within this line will be rockier since their water will vaporize, or condense to form oceans on their surfaces (if a sufficient atmosphere is present). Beyond this line, water will take the form of ice and can be accreted to form planets.

From their analyses, the team determined that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed beyond the ice line and migrated towards their host star to assume their current orbits. However, since M-type (red dwarf) stars are known to be brightest after the first form and dim over time, the ice line would have also moved inward. As co-author Steven Desch explained, how far the planets migrated would therefore depend on when they had formed.

Artist’s impression of how the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star may appear. The planet is in the habitable zone so liquid water exists. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

“The earlier the planets formed, the farther away from the star they needed to have formed to have so much ice,” he said. Based on how long it takes for rocky planets to form, the team estimated that the planets must have originally been twice as far from their star as they are now. While there are other indications that the planets in this system migrated over time, this study is the first to quantify the migration and use composition data to show it.

This study is not the first to indicate that planets orbiting red dwarf stars may in fact be “water worlds“, which would mean that rocky planets with continents on their surfaces are a relatively rare thing. At the same time, other studies have been conducted that indicate that such planets are likely to have a hard time holding onto their atmospheres, indicating that they would not remain water worlds for very long.

However, until we can get a better look at these planets – which will be possible with the deployment of next-generation instruments (like the James Webb Space Telescope) – we will be forced to theorize about what we don’t know based what we do. By slowly learning more about these and other exoplanets, our ability to determine where we should be looking for life beyond our Solar System will be refined.

Further Reading: SESE, Nature Astronomy

Good News For The Search For Life, The Trappist System Might Be Rich In Water

When we finally find life somewhere out there beyond Earth, it’ll be at the end of a long search. Life probably won’t announce its presence to us, we’ll have to follow a long chain of clues to find it. Like scientists keep telling us, at the start of that chain of clues is water.

The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system last year generated a lot of excitement. 7 planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, only 40 light years from Earth. At the time, astronomers thought at least some of them were Earth-like. But now a new study shows that some of the planets could hold more water than Earth. About 250 times more.

This new study focuses on the density of the 7 TRAPPIST-1 planets. Trying to determine that density is a challenging task, and it involved some of the powerhouses in the world of telescopes. The Spitzer Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope, and the SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars) facility at ESO’s Paranal Observatory were all used in the study.

This artist’s impression shows several of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. New observations, when combined with very sophisticated analysis, have now yielded good estimates of the densities of all seven of the Earth-sized planets and suggest that they are rich in volatile materials, probably water. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In this study, the observations from the three telescopes were subjected to complex computer modelling to determine the densities of the 7 TRAPPIST planets. As a result, we now know that they are all mostly made of rock, and that some of them could be 5% water by mass. (Earth is only about 0.02% water by mass.)

Finding the densities of these planets was not easy. To do so, scientists had to determine both the mass and the size. The TRAPPIST-1 planets were found using the transit method, where the light of the host star dips as the planets pass between their star and us. The transit method gives us a pretty good idea of the size of the planets, but that’s it.

It’s a lot harder to find the mass, because planets with different masses can have the same orbits and we can’t tell them apart. But in multi-planet systems like TRAPPIST-1, there is a way.

As the planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star, more massive planets disturb the orbits of the other planets more than lighter ones. This changes the timing of the transits. These effects are “complicated and very subtle” according to the team, and it took a lot of observation and measurement of the transit timing—and very complex computer modelling—to determine their densities.

Lead author Simon Grimm explains how it was done: “The TRAPPIST-1 planets are so close together that they interfere with each other gravitationally, so the times when they pass in front of the star shift slightly. These shifts depend on the planets’ masses, their distances and other orbital parameters. With a computer model, we simulate the planets’ orbits until the calculated transits agree with the observed values, and hence derive the planetary masses.”

So, what about the water?

First of all, this study didn’t detect water. It detected volatile material which is probably water.

Whether or not they’ve confirmed the presence of water, these are still very important results. We’re getting good at finding exoplanets, and the next step is to determine the properties of any atmospheres that exoplanets have.

Team member Eric Agol comments on the significance: “A goal of exoplanet studies for some time has been to probe the composition of planets that are Earth-like in size and temperature. The discovery of TRAPPIST-1 and the capabilities of ESO’s facilities in Chile and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit have made this possible — giving us our first glimpse of what Earth-sized exoplanets are made of!”

This diagram compares the sizes, masses and estimated temperatures of the TRAPPIST-1 planets with Solar System planets. The colours indicate temperatures and the black line matches the densities and composition of the terrestrial planets in the Solar System. Planets above the line are less dense and planets below are more dense. Image: EXO/S.Grimm et. al.

This study doesn’t tell us if any of the TRAPPIST planets have life on them, or even if they’re habitable. It’s just one more step on the path to hopefully, maybe, one day, finding life somewhere. Study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, at the University of Bern, said as much: “Densities, while important clues to the planets’ compositions, do not say anything about habitability. However, our study is an important step forward as we continue to explore whether these planets could support life.”

This diagram compares the masses and energy input of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, along with the properties of the four innermost Solar System planets. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is what the study determined about the different planets in the TRAPPIST system:

  • TRAPPIST 1-b and 1c are the two innermost planets and are likely to have rocky cores and be surrounded by atmospheres much thicker than Earth’s.
  • TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets at about 30 percent the mass of Earth. We’re uncertain whether it has a large atmosphere, an ocean or an ice layer.
  • TRAPPIST-1e is a bit of a surprise. It’s the only planet in the system slightly denser than Earth. It may have a denser iron core, and it does not necessarily have a thick atmosphere, ocean or ice layer. TRAPPIST-1e is a mystery because it appears to be so much rockier than the rest of the planets. It’s the most similar to Earth, in size, density and the amount of radiation it receives from its star.
  • TRAPPIST-1f, g and h might have frozen surfaces. If they have thin atmospheres, they would be unlikely to contain the heavy molecules that we find on Earth, such as carbon dioxide.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is going to be studied for a very long time. It promises to be one of the first targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (we hope.) It’s a very intriguing system, and whether or not any of the planets are deemed habitable, studying them will teach us a lot about our search for water, habitability, and life.

What is the Radial Velocity Method?

Welcome back to our series on Exoplanet-Hunting methods! Today, we look at another widely-used and popular method of exoplanet detection, known as the Radial Velocity (aka. Doppler Spectroscopy) Method.

The hunt for extra-solar planets sure has heated up in the past decade or so! Thanks to improvements made in instrumentation and methodology, the number of exoplanets discovered (as of December 1st, 2017) has reached 3,710 planets in 2,780 star systems, with 621 system boasting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to the limits astronomers are forced to contend with, the vast majority have been discovered using indirect methods.

When it comes to these indirect methods, one of the most popular and effective is the Radial Velocity Method – also known as Doppler Spectroscopy. This method relies on observing the spectra stars for signs of “wobble”, where the star is found to be moving towards and away from Earth. This movement is caused by the presence of planets, which exert a gravitational influence on their respective sun.


Essentially, the Radial Velocity Method consists not of looking for signs of planets themselves, but in observing a star for signs of movement. This is deduced by using a spectometer to measure the way in which the star’s spectral lines are displaced due to the Doppler Effect – i.e. how light from the star is shifted towards the red or blue end of the spectrum (redshift/blueshift).

Diagram detailing the Radial Velocity (aka. Doppler Shift) method. Credit: Las Cumbres Observatory

These shifts are indications that the star is moving away from (redshift) or towards (blueshift) Earth. Based on the star’s velocity, astronomers can determine the presence of a planet or system of planets. The speed at which a star moves around its center of mass, which is much smaller than that of a planet, is nevertheless measurable using today’s spectrometers.

Until 2012, this method was the most effective means of detecting exoplanets, but has since come to be replaced by the Transit Photometry. Nevertheless, it remains a highly effective method and is often relied upon in conjunction with the Transit Method to confirm the existence of exoplanets and place constraints on their size and mass.


The Radial Velocity method was the first successful means of exoplanet detection, and has had a high success rate for identifying exoplanets in both nearby (Proxima b and TRAPPIST-1‘s seven planets) and distant star systems (COROT-7c). One of the main advantages is that it allows for the eccentricity of the planet’s orbit to be measured directly.

The radial velocity signal is distance-independent, but requires a high signal-to-noise-ratio spectra to achieve a high degree of precision. As such, it is generally used to look for low-mass planets around stars that are within 160 light-years from Earth, but can still detect gas giants up to a few thousand light years away.

The radial velocity technique is able to detect planets around low-mass stars, such as M-type (red dwarf) stars. This is due to the fact that low mass stars are more affected by the gravitational tug of planets and because such stars generally rotate more slowly (leading to more clear spectral lines). This makes the Radial Velocity Method highly useful for two reasons.

For one, M-type stars are the most common in the Universe, accounting for 70% of stars in spiral galaxies and 90% of stars in elliptical galaxies. Second, recent studies have indicated that low-mass, M-type stars are the most likely place to find terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets. The Radial Velocity Method is therefore well-suited for the study of Earth-like planets that orbit closely to red dwarf suns (within their respective habitable zones).

Another major advantage is the way the Radial Velocity Method is able to place accurate constraints on a planet’s mass. Although the radial velocity of a star can only yield estimates a planet’s minimum mass, distinguishing the planet’s own spectral lines from those of the the star can yield measurements of the planet’s radial velocity.

This allows astronomers to determine the inclination of the planet’s orbit, which enables the measurement of the planet’s actual mass. This technique also rules out false positives and provides data about the composition of the planet. The main issue is that such detection is possible only if the planet orbits around a relatively bright star and if the planet reflects or emits a lot of light.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection – radial velocity (blue), transit (green), timing (yellow), direct imaging (red), microlensing (orange). Credit: Public domain

As of December 2017, 662 of all exoplanet discoveries (both candidates and those that have been confirmed) were detected using the Radial Velocity Method alone – almost 30% of the total.


That being said, the Radial Velocity Method also has some notable drawbacks. For starters, it is not possible to observe hundreds or even thousands of stars simultaneously with a single telescope – as is done with Transit Photometry. In addition, sometimes Doppler spectrography can produces false signals, especially in multi-planet and multi-star systems.

This is often due to the presence of magnetic fields and certain types of stellar activity, but can also arise from a lack of sufficient data since stars are not generally observed continuously. However, these limitations can be mitigated by pairing radial velocity measurements with another method, the most popular and effective of which is Transit Photometry.

While distinguishing between the spectral lines of a star and a planet can allow for better constraints to be placed on a planet’s mass, this is generally only possible if the planet orbits around a relatively bright star and the planet reflects or emits a lot of light.  In addition, planet’s that have highly inclined orbits (relative to the observer’s line of sight) produce smaller visible wobbles, and are therefore harder to detect.

In the end, the Radial Velocity Method is most effective when paired with Transit Photometry, specifically for the sake of confirming detections made with the latter method. When both methods are used in combination, the existence of a planet can not only be confirmed, but accurate estimates of its radius and true mass can be made.

Examples of Radial Velocity Surveys:

Observatories that use the Radial Velocity method include the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla Observatory in Chile. This facility conducts exoplanet-hunting surveys using its 3.6 meter telescope, which is equipped with the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrometer. There’s also the telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kei, Hawaii, which rely on the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) spectrometer.

There’s also the Haute-Provence Observatory in Southern France, which used the ELODIE spectrograph to detect 51 Pegasi b – the first “Hot Jupiter” found to be orbiting a main sequence star – in 1995. In 2006, ELODIE was decommissioned and replaced by the SOPHIE spectrograph.

Exoplanet-hunting surveys that rely on the Radial Velocity Method are expected to benefit greatly form the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled for 2019. Once operational, this mission will obtain Doppler measurements of stars using its advanced suite of infrared instruments to determine the presence of exoplanet candidates. Some of these will then be confirmed using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – which will deploy in 2018.

Thanks to improvements in 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 are Extra Solar Planets?, What is the Transit Method?, What is the Direct Imaging Method?, What is the Gravitational Microlensing Method?, and Kepler’s Universe: More Planets in our Galaxy than Stars.

Astronomy Cast also has some interesting episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 366: HARPS Spectrograph.

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s page on Exoplanet Exploration, the Planetary Society’s page on Extrasolar Planets, and the NASA/Caltech Exoplanet Archive.


Astronomers Find Another Solar System with 8 Planets. Uh, Pluto, About that Deplaneting…

In a series of papers, Professor Loeb and Michael Hippke indicate that conventional rockets would have a hard time escaping from certain kinds of extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

With every passing year, more and more extra-solar planets are discovered. To make matters more interesting, improvements in methodology and technology are allowing for the discovery of more planets within individual systems. Consider the recent announcement of a seven-planet system around the red dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. At the time, this discovery established the record for most exoplanets orbiting a single star.

Well move over TRAPPIST-1! Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope and machine learning, a team from Google AI and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) recently discovered an eighth planet in the distant star system of Kepler-90. Known as Kepler -90i, the discovery of this planet was made possible thanks to Google algorithms that detected evidence of a weak transit signal in the Kepler mission data.

The study which describes their findings, titled “Identifying Exoplanets with Deep Learning: A Five Planet Resonant Chain Around Kepler-80 and an Eight Planet Around Kepler-90“, recently appeared online and has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal. The research team consisted of Christopher Shallue of Google AI and Andrew Vanderburg of the University of Texas and the CfA.

Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Credits: NASA

Kepler-90, a Sun-like star, is located roughly 2,545 light-years from Earth in the constellation Draco. As noted, previous surveys had indicated the existence of seven planets around the star, a combination of terrestrial (aka. rocky) planets and gas giants. But after using a Google algorithm created to search through Kepler data, the research team confirmed that the signal of a another closer-orbiting planet lurked within the data.

The Kepler mission relies on the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) to discern the presence of planets around brighter stars. This consists of observing stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are an indication that a planet is passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer. For the sake of their study, Shallue and Vanderburg trained a computer to read light-curves recorded by Kepler and determine the presence of transits.

This artificial “neural network” sifted through Kepler data and found weak transit signals that indicated the presence of a previously-missed planet around Kepler-90. This discovery not only indicated that this system is very much like our own, it also confirms the value of using artificial intelligence to mine archival data. While machine learning has been used to search Kepler data before, this research demonstrates that even the weakest signals can now be discerned.

As Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, said in a recent NASA press release:

“Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them. This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”

This newly-discovered planet, known as Kepler-90i, is a rocky planet that is comparable in size to Earth (1.32 ± 0.21 Earth radii) that orbits its star with a period of 14.4 days. Given its close proximity to its star, this planet is believed to experience extreme temperatures of 709 K (436 °C; 817 °F) – making it hotter than Mercury’s daytime high of 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F).

As a senior software engineer with Google’s research team Google AI, Shallue came up with the idea to apply a neural network to Kepler data after learning that astronomy (like other branches of science) is becoming rapidly a “big data” concern. As the technology for data collection becomes more advanced, scientists find themselves being inundated with data sets of ever-increasing size and complexity. As Shallue explained:

“In my spare time, I started googling for ‘finding exoplanets with large data sets’ and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge data set available. Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can’t search it for themselves.”

The Kepler mission, in its first four-years in operation, accumulated a dataset that consisted of 35,000 possible planetary transit signals. In the past, automated tests and sometimes visual inspections were used to verify the most promising signals in the data. However, the weakest signals were often missed with these methods, leaving dozens or even hundreds of planets unaccounted for.

Diagram comparing the Kepler-90 system (left) to the Solar System (right). Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel

Looking to improve on this, Shallue teamed up Andrew Vanderburgh – a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and NASA Sagan Fellow – to see if machine learning could mine the data and turn up more signals. The first step consisted of training a neural network to identify transiting exoplanets using a set of 15,000 previously-vetted signals from the Kepler exoplanet catalogue.

In the test set, the neural network correctly identified true planets and false positives with a 96% accuracy rate. Having demonstrated that it could recognize transit signals, the team then directed their neural network to search for weaker signals in 670 star systems that already had multiple known planets. These included Kepler-80, which had five previously-known planets, and Kepler-90, which had seven. As Vanderburg indicated:

“We got lots of false positives of planets, but also potentially more real planets. It’s like sifting through rocks to find jewels. If you have a finer sieve then you will catch more rocks but you might catch more jewels, as well.”

The sixth planet in Kepler-80 is known as Kepler-80g, an Earth-sized planet that is in a resonant chain with its five neighboring planets. This occurs when planets are locked by their mutual gravity into an extremely stable system, similar to what TRAPPIST-1’s seven planets experience. Kepler-90i, on the other hand, is an Earth-sized planet that experiences Mercury-like conditions and orbits outside of 90b and 90c.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets. Credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

In the future, Shallue and Vanderburg plan to apply their neural network to Kepler’s full archive of more than 150,000 stars. Within this massive data set, many more planets are likely to be lurking, and quote possibly within multi-planetary systems that have already been surveyed. In this respect, the Kepler mission (which has already been invaluable to exoplanet research) has shown that it has a lot more to offer.

As Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, put it:

“These results demonstrate the enduring value of Kepler’s mission. New ways of looking at the data – such as this early-stage research to apply machine learning algorithms – promises to continue to yield significant advances in our understanding of planetary systems around other stars. I’m sure there are more firsts in the data waiting for people to find them.”

Naturally, the fact that a Sun-like star is now known to have a system of eight planets (like our Solar System), there are those who wonder if this system could be a good bet for finding extra-terrestrial life. But before anyone get’s too excited, it is worth noting that Kepler-90s planets all orbit rather closely to the star. It’s outermost planet, Kepler-90h, orbits at a similar distance to its star as Earth does to the Sun.

The discovery of an eighth planet around another star also means there’s a system out there that rivals the Solar System in total number of planets. Maybe it’s time we reconsidered the 2006 IAU decision – you know, the one where Pluto was “demoted”? And while we’re at it, perhaps we should fast-track Ceres, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Sedna and the rest for planethood. Otherwise, how else do we plan on maintaing our record?

In the future, similar machine learning processes are likely to be applied to next-generation exoplanet-hunting missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). These missions are scheduled to launch in 2018 and 2019, respectively. And in the meantime, there are sure to be many more revelations coming from Kepler!

Further Reading: NASA, CfA

New Study Claims that TRAPPIST-1 Could Also Have Gas Giants

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In February of 2017, NASA scientists announced the existence of seven terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets within the TRAPPIST-1 star system. Since that time, the system has been the focal point of intense research to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable. At the same time, astronomers have been wondering if all of the system’s planets are actually accounted for.

For instance, could this system have gas giants lurking in its outer reaches, as many other systems with rocky planets (for instance, ours) do? That was the question that a team of scientists, led by researchers from the Carnegie Institute of Science, sought to address in a recent study. According to their findings, TRAPPIST-1 may be orbited by gas giants at a much-greater distance than its seven rocky planets.

The study, titled “Astrometric Constraints on the Masses of Long-Period Gas Giant Planets in the TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System“, recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal. As they indicate in their study, the team relied on follow-up observations made of TRAPPIST-1 over a period of five years (from 2011 to 2016) using the du Pont telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Using these observations, they sought to determine if TRAPPIST-1 could have previously-undetected gas giants orbiting within the outer reaches of the system. As Dr. Alan Boss – an astrophysicist and planetary scientist with the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and the lead author on the paper – explained in a Carnegie press statement:

“A number of other star systems that include Earth-sized planets and super-Earths are also home to at least one gas giant. So, asking whether these seven planets have gas giant siblings with longer-period orbits is an important question.”

For years, Boss has conducted an exoplanet-hunting survey with the co-authors of the study – Alycia J. Weinberger, Ian B. Thompson, et al. – known as the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search. This survey relies on the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search Camera (CAPSCam), an instrument on the du Pont telecope that searches for extrasolar planets using the astrometric method.

This indirect method of exoplanet-hunting determines the presence of planets around a star by measuring the wobble of this host star around the system’s center of mass (aka. its barycenter). Using CAPSCam, Boss and his colleagues relied on several years of observations of TRAPPIST-1 to determine the upper mass limits for any potential gas giants orbiting in the system.

From this, they concluded that planets that were up to 4.6 Jupiter Masses could orbit the star with a period of a year. In addition, they found that planets up to 1.6 Jupiter Masses could orbit the star with 5-year periods. In other words, it is possible that TRAPPIST-1 has some long-period gas giants orbiting its outer reaches, much in the same way that long-period gas giants exists beyond the orbit of Mars in the Solar System.

Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone. CreditL NASA/JPL

If true, the existence of these giant planets could resolve an ongoing debate about the formation of the Solar System’s gas giants. According to the most-widely accepted theory about the Solar System’s formation (i.e. Nebular Hypothesis), the Sun and planets were born of a nebula of gas and dust. After this cloud experienced gravitational collapse at the center, forming the Sun, the remaining dust and gas flattened out into a disk surrounding it.

Earth and the other terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) all formed closer to the Sun from the accretion of silicate minerals and metals. As for the gas giants, there are some competing theories as to how they formed. In one scenario, known as the Core Accretion theory, the gas giants also began accreting from solid materials (forming a solid core) which became large enough to attract an envelop of surrounding gas.

A competing explanation – known as the Disk Instability theory – claims that they formed when the disk of gas and dust took on a spiral arm formation (similar to a galaxy). These arms then began to increase in mass and density, forming clumps that rapidly coalesced to form baby gas giants. Using computational models, Boss and his colleagues considered both theories to see if gas giants could form around a low-mass star like TRAPPIST-1.

Whereas Core Accretion was not likely, the Disk Instability theory indicated that gas giants could form around TRAPPIST-1 and other low-mass red dwarf stars. As such, this study provides a theoretical framework for the existence of gas giants in red dwarf star systems that are already known to have rocky planets. This is certainly encouraging news for exoplanet-hunters given the spate of rocky planets have been found orbiting red dwarfs of late.

Aside from TRAPPIST-1, these include the closest exoplanet to the Solar System (Proxima b), as well as LHS 1140b, Gliese 581g, Gliese 625b, and Gliese 682c. But as Boss also noted, this research is still in its infancy, and much more research and discussion needs to take place before anything can be said conclusively. Luckily, studies such as this one are helping to open to the door to such studies and discussions.

“Gas giant planets found on long-period orbits around TRAPPIST-1 could challenge the core accretion theory, but not necessarily the disk instability theory,” said Boss. “There is a lot of space for further investigation between the longer-period orbits we studied here and the very short orbits of the seven known TRAPPIST-1 planets.”

Boss and his team also assert that continued observations with the CAPSCam and further refinements in its data analysis pipeline will either detect any long-period planets, or put an even tighter constraint on their upper mass limits. And of course, the deployment of next-generation infrared telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will assist in the hunt for gas giants around red dwarf stars.

Further Reading: Carnegie Institute of ScienceThe Astronomical Journal

Hubble Spots First Indications of Water on TRAPPIST-1s Planets

This artist’s impression shows the view from the surface of one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. A powerful laser beacon using current and near-future technology could send a signal strong enough to be detected by any alien astronomers here. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

In February of 2017, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of seven rocky planets around the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Not only was this the largest number of Earth-like planets discovered in a single star system to date, the news was also bolstered by the fact that three of these planets were found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone.

Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to ascertain the likelihood that these planets are actually habitable. Thanks to an international team of scientists who used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the system’s planets, we now have the first clues as to whether or not water (a key ingredient to life as we know it) exists on any of TRAPPIST-1s rocky worlds.

The team’s study, titled “Temporal Evolution of the High-Energy Irradiation and Water Content of TRAPPIST-1 Exoplanets“, recently appeared on the Hubble site. Led by Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier from the Observatoire de l’Université de Genève, the team relied on Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to study the amount of ultraviolet radiation each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets receives.

Artist concepts of the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii and masses as compared to those of Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL

As Bourrier explained in a Hubble press release, this helped them to determine the water content of the system’s seven planets:

“Ultraviolet radiation is an important factor in the atmospheric evolution of planets. As in our own atmosphere, where ultraviolet sunlight breaks molecules apart, ultraviolet starlight can break water vapor in the atmospheres of exoplanets into hydrogen and oxygen.”

How ultraviolet radiation interacts with a planet’s atmosphere is important when it comes to assessing the potential habitability of a planet. Whereas lower-energy UV radiation causes photodissociation, a process where water molecules break down into oxygen and hydrogen, extreme ultraviolet rays (XUV radiation) and x-rays cause the upper atmosphere of a planet to heat up – which causes the hydrogen and oxygen to escape.

Since hydrogen is lighter than oxygen, it is more easily lost to space where its spectra can be observed. This is precisely what Bourrier and his team did. By monitoring the TRAPPIST-1 planets spectra for signs of hydrogen loss, the team was effectively able to gauge their water content. What they found was that the UV radiation emitted by TRAPPIST-1 suggests that its planets could have lost quite a lot of water during their history.

The losses were most severe for the innermost planets – TRAPPIST-1b and 1c – which receive the most UV radiation from their star. In fact, the team estimates that these planets could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans worth of water in the course of the system’s history – which is estimated to be between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years old. In other words, these inner planets would be bone dry and most definitely sterile.

This illustration shows the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets as they might look as viewed from Earth using a fictional, incredibly powerful telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, these same findings also suggest that the outer planets of the system have lost significantly less water over time, which could mean that they still possess abundant amounts on their surfaces. This includes the three planets that are within the star’s habitable zone – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – which indicates that these planets could be habitable after all.

These findings are bolstered by the calculated water loss and geophysical water release rates, which also favor the idea that the more-massive and outermost planets have retained most of their water over time. These findings are very significant, in that they further demonstrate that atmospheric escape and evolution are closely linked on the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system.

The findings are also encouraging, since previous studies that considered atmospheric loss in this system painted a rather grim picture. These include those that indicated that TRAPPIST-1 experiences too much flare, that even calm red dwarfs subject their planets to intense radiation over time, and that the distance between TRAPPIST-1 and its respective planets would mean that solar wind would be deposited directly onto their atmospheres.

In other words, these studies cast doubt on whether or not stars that orbit M-type (red dwarf) stars would be able to retain their atmospheres over time – even if they had an Earth-like atmosphere and magnetosphere. Like Mars, this research indicated that atmospheric stripping caused by solar wind would inevitably render their surfaces cold, desiccated, and lifeless.

Artist’s illustration showing the difference  TRAPPIST-1 in relation to our Sun. Credit: ESO

In short, this is one of the few pieces of good news we’ve received since the existence of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system (and three potentially habitable ones) was first announced. It’s also a positive indication as far as the habitability of red dwarf star systems go. In recent years, many of those impressive exoplanet finds have taken place around red dwarf stars – i.e. Proxima b, LHS 1140b, Gliese 581g, Gliese 625b, and Gliese 682c.

Given the number of rocky planets that have been detected orbiting this type of star – and the fact that they are the most common in in the Universe (accounting for 70% of stars in the Milky Way alone) – knowing that they could support habitable planets is certainly welcome! But of course, Bourrier and his colleagues emphasize that the study is not conclusive, and further research is needed to determine if any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are actually watery.

As Bourieer indicated, this will most likely involve next-generation telescopes:

“While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability.”

Rocky planets around the most common type of star, the potential to retain water, and 1oo billion potential planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. One thing is for sure: the James Webb Space Telescope is going to have its hands full once it is deployed in October of 2018!

And be sure to check out this animation of the TRAPPIST-1 system as well, courtesy of L. Calçada and the ESO:

Further Reading: Hubble Space Telescope, HST (2)