How Do You Measure A Planet Near A Tiny Star?

When you sit back and think about how far away exoplanets are — and how faint — it’s a scientific feat that we can find these distant worlds outside our Solar System at all. It’s even harder to learn about the world if the exoplanet is orbiting a dim star — say, about two-thirds the size of the Sun — that is faint through even the largest telescope.

In response to this problem, there’s one science team that thinks it’s found a way to solve it. Their research bumped a planet from the habitable zone to the not-so-friendly zone of a star. Here’s how it happened:

The usual way to measure a distant star is this: look at the light. A Sun-sized star, for example, would have its light waves measured at different wavelengths. Scientists then match what they see to spectra (light bands) that are created artificially.

This method doesn’t work so well for smaller stars, though. “The challenge is that small stars are incredibly difficult to characterize,” stated Sarah Ballard, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington, in a press release. Worse, these small guys make up about two-thirds of the stars in the universe.

Red Dwarf star and planet. Artists impression (NASA)
Red Dwarf star and planet. Artists impression (NASA)

Ballard led a multi-university team describing a “characterization by proxy” method accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and now available online.

The science team based their work on previous research performed by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, who is currently at Yale University.

Boyajian combined the resources of several telescopes that measured wavelengths of light, wavelengths that are slightly longer than visible light. This technique allowed the interferometer (the combined telescopes) to figure out the size of stars that are close by.

With that data on hand, Ballard and her colleagues looked out into the universe. Their target was Kepler-61b (Kepler Object 1361.01), a “candidate” planet about double the size of Earth spotted by the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The candidate, if proven, is orbiting a low-mass star 900 light-years away that is hard to measure in a telescope.

Kepler space telescope's field of view. Credit: NASA
Kepler space telescope’s field of view. Credit: NASA

Next, the scientists picked four nearby stars that have similar light patterns, reasoning that they would be spectroscopially close enough to Kepler-61b’s parent star to make accurate measurements. The four stars are located in Ursa Major and Cygnus, ranging between 12 to 25 light years away from Earth.

When the scientists compared the measurements to Kepler 61’s star, a surprise emerged.

“Kepler-61 turned out to be bigger and hotter than expected,” the University of Washington stated. “This in turn recalibrated planet Kepler-61b’s relative size upward as well — meaning it, too, would be hotter than previously thought and no longer a resident of the star’s habitable zone.”

The newly refined planetary radius for Kepler-61b is 2.15 times the radius of Earth (plus or minus 0.13 radii). Astronomers estimate it orbits its star about once every 59.9 days and has a temperature of 273 Kelvin (plus or minus 13 Kelvin.)

Artist's impression of the habitable zone around variously sized stars. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the habitable zone around variously sized stars. Credit: NASA

Just to wrap up, here’s a note about how likely it is that Kepler-61b is actually a planet — and not a planetary candidate.

The candidate was first described in this 2011 scientific paper. Kepler-61b is just one in a long list of 1,235 planetary candidates catalogued in that paper, all discovered in just four months — between May 2 and Sept. 16, 2009.

While the NASA Exoplanet Archive still lists Kepler-61b as a candidate planet — one that must be confirmed by independent observations — this 2011 paper says that most Kepler candidates have a strong possibility of being actual planets because the Kepler software is technologically apt.

In other words, Ballard and her co-authors write in the research, Kepler-61b is very likely to be a planet itself — with only 4.8 percent possibility of being a “false positive”, to be exact.

Source: University of Washington

Scientists Set Their Sights on Arctic Ice Loss

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NASA researchers have just completed science mission flights over Greenland and the surrounding seas, gathering data on ice distribution and thickness with the MABEL (Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar) laser altimeter instrument mounted in the nose of an ER-2 aircraft. WIth MABEL’s unprecedented ability to detect individual photons, researchers will be able to even more accurately determine how Arctic ice sheets are behaving in today’s changing climate.

At the same time, news has come in from researchers with the University of Washington, who have completed a NASA- and NSF-funded study of the enormous island’s glaciers spanning a ten-year period. What they have found is that the glaciers have been increasing in speed about 30% over the past ten years — which is actually less than earlier studies had anticipated.

“In some sense, this raises as many questions as it answers. It shows there’s a lot of variability,” said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist in the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory and coauthor of the paper, published May 4 in Science.

Previous research had suggested that Greenland’s melting glaciers could contribute up to 19 inches to global sea level rise by 2100. But the behavior of Greenland’s vast ice fields and ocean-draining glaciers was not yet thoroughly researched. Based on this new study, the outlet glaciers have not sped up as much as expected.

Still, ocean-draining (a.k.a. marine-terminating) glaciers move much faster than their land-based counterparts, and the UW researchers have found that their speeds are increasing on average — up to 32% in some areas.

The team realizes that the study may just not have observed a long enough period of time. (These are glaciers, after all!)

Icebergs calve from the edge of Greenland's Gyldenlove glacier in April 2011. (NASA/GSFC/Michael Studinger)

“There’s the caveat that this 10-year time series is too short to really understand long-term behavior, so there still may be future events – tipping points – that could cause large increases in glacier speed to continue,” said Ian Howat, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University and a co-author of the paper. “Or perhaps some of the big glaciers in the north of Greenland that haven’t yet exhibited any changes may begin to speed up, which would greatly increase the rate of sea level rise.”

What the researchers didn’t find was any evidence that the rate of flow is slowing down. Though the true extent of the effect of Greenland’s ice on future sea level rise may not be unerringly predictable down to the inch or centimeter, even at the currently observed rate a contribution of 4 or more inches by the end of the century is still very much a possibility.

Meanwhile, the data gathered from the MABEL science flights over the past four weeks will be used to calibrate NASA’s next-generation ice-observing satellite, IceSat-2, planned for launch in 2016. Once in orbit, IceSat-2 will provide even more detailed insight to the complex behavior of our planet’s ice sheets.

Read more on the UW News release here.

“Tidal Venuses” May Have Been Wrung Out To Dry

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Earth-sized exoplanets within a distant star’s habitable zone could still be very much uninhabitable, depending on potential tidal stresses — either past or present — that could have “squeezed out” all the water, leaving behind a bone-dry ball of rock.

New research by an international team of scientists suggests that even a moderately eccentric orbit within a star’s habitable zone could exert tidal stress on an Earth-sized planet, enough that the increased surface heating due to friction would boil off any liquid water via extreme greenhouse effect.

Such planets are dubbed “Tidal Venuses”, due to their resemblance to our own super-heated planetary neighbor. This evolutionary possibility could be a factor in determining the actual habitability of an exoplanet, regardless of how much solar heating (insolation) it receives from its star.

The research, led by Dr. Rory Barnes of the University of Washington in Seattle, states that even an exoplanet currently in a circular, stable orbit could have formed with a much more eccentric orbit, thus subjecting it to tidal forces. Any liquid water present after formation would then have been slowly but steadily evaporated and the necessary hydrogen atoms lost to space.

The risk of such a “desiccating greenhouse” effect would be much greater on exoplanets orbiting lower-luminosity stars, since any potential habitable zone would be closer in to the star and thus prone to stronger tidal forces.

And as far as such an effect working to create habitable zones further out in orbit than otherwise permissible by stellar radiation alone… well, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

Even if an exoplanetary version of, say, Europa, could be heated through tidal forces to maintain liquid water on or below its surface, a rocky world the size of Earth (or larger) would still likely end up being rather inhospitable.

“One couldn’t do it for an Earthlike planet — the tidal heating of the interior would likely make the surface covered by super-volcanoes,” Dr. Barnes told Universe Today.

So even though the right-sized exoplanets may be found in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” of their star, they may still not be “just right” for life as we know it.

The team’s full paper can be found here.