Category: Discoveries (page 1 of 5)

The Space Telescope That Could Find a Second Earth

This rare picture of an exoplanet (called 2M1207B) shows a red world several times Jupiter’s size orbiting a brown dwarf much smaller and dimmer than our sun. LUVOIR is after more elusive targets: small, rocky planets around bright stars. (ESO)

What will it take to capture images and spectra of a distant world capable of harboring life?
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For all the excitement surrounding the search for distant exoplanets in recent years, the 4,000-plus planets confirmed so far have been unseen actors on the cosmic stage. Except for a handful of very large bodies imaged by ground-based telescopes, virtually all exoplanets have been detected only when they briefly dim the light coming from their host stars or when their gravity causes the star to wobble in a distinctive way. Observing these patterns and using a few other methods, scientists can determine an exoplanet’s orbit, radius, mass, and sometimes density—but not much else. The planets remain, in the words of one researcher in the field, “small black shadows.”

Scientists want much more. They’d like to know in detail the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres, whether liquid water might be present on their surfaces, and, ultimately, whether these worlds might be hospitable to life.

Answering those questions will require space telescopes that don’t yet exist. To determine what kinds of telescopes, NASA commissioned two major studies that have taken large teams of (mostly volunteer) scientists and engineers four years to complete. The results are now under review by the National Academy of Sciences, as part of its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics that will recommend government funding priorities for the 2030s. Past and current NASA mega-projects, from the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch this year, have all gone through this same vetting process. Sometime this spring, the Decadal Survey is expected to wrap up its deliberations and make recommendations.

That puts four proposals in the running to become NASA’s next “Great Observatory” in space: an X-ray telescope called Lynx; the Origins Space Telescope for studying the early universe; and two telescopes devoted mostly, but not exclusively, to exoplanets. One is called HabEx, for Habitable Exoplanet Observatory. The other—the most ambitious, most complex, most expensive, and most revolutionary of all these concepts—is called LUVOIR, for Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.… Read more

A Close Exoplanet Found That May Have An Atmosphere Ideal For Study

Planet Gliese 486b is close to us (in a relative sense), rocky, on the small side and may have an atmosphere.  These conclusions come from studying the planet using both the transit and radial velocity techniques, which have been the primary methods used by astronomers to find and characterize exoplanets.  Charts showing the presence of the planet using both techniques are in the blue boxes. (Render Area, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, MPIA)

Different methods of searching for and finding distant exoplanets give different information about the planets found.

The transit method — where an exoplanets passed in front of its sun and dims the bright sunlight ever so slightly — gives astronomers not only a detection but also its radius or size.

The radial velocity method — where an exoplanet’s gravity causes its host star to “wobble” in a way that can be measured — provides different information about mass and orbit.

If a planet can be measured by both the transit and radial velocity methods, an important added dimension can be determined — how dense the planet might be.  This tells us if the planet is rocky or gaseous, watery or even if it has a central core and might have an atmosphere.  So many things have to go right that this kind of dual detection has seldom been accomplished for a  relatively small and rocky planet, but such a new planet has now been found.

The planet, Gliese 486b, is a super-Earth orbiting its host star at only 24 light-years away.  That makes the planet the third closest transiting exoplanet to Earth that is known, and the closest with a measured mass that transits a red dwarf star.

The authors of the study in the journal Science say Gliese 486b is an ideal candidate for learning how to best search for and characterize an all-important atmosphere, and to study potential habitability, too.  Future telescopes will make this kind of work more of a reality.

“Gliese 486 b is not hot enough to be a lava world,” lead author Trifon Trifonov of the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie and colleagues write. “But its temperature of ~700 Kelvin (800 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it suitable for emission spectroscopy and …. studies in search of an atmosphere.”

Artist impression of the surface of the newly discovered hot super-Earth Gliese 486 b. With a temperature of about 700 Kelvin (almost 800 degrees Fahrenheit), 486b possibly has an atmosphere.

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The Directly Imaged World Around α Centauri?

Optical and X-ray (cut-out) image of the Alpha Centauri binary stars (Optical: Zdenek Bardon; X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Colorado/T. Ayres et al.)

There is something terribly exciting about actually seeing an exoplanet. While we have discovered over 4,000 planets outside the solar system, the majority of these worlds have been identified through their influence on their star, either via a dimming of the star’s light as the planet transits across its surface, or the wobble of the star from the planet’s gravitational pull. These are incredibly powerful techniques for planet hunting, but neither allow us to actually lay eyes on the planet itself.

The method to actually see a planet is known as “direct imaging” and it is a tricky process, as the star’s light can easily overwhelm any radiation coming from the smaller, cooler planet. Exoplanet imagining has therefore focused on young Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting far from the powerful lighthouse of the star. These planets are large and their recent formation has left them packed with heat, with temperatures around 1340°F (727°C). Such hot houses emit thermal radiation at wavelengths around 5 microns, so most of the instruments dedicated to capturing planet pictures operate around this wavelength range.

Direct imaging of exoplanets is difficult, and so far has been mainly restricted to young, massive planets. This amazing animation of four planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting the young star HR 8799 includes images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. (Jason Wang and Christian Marois)

However, these wavelengths are a bad choice if you want to try imaging an Earth-like world. As an evolved planet on a temperate orbit, thermal emission from a planet like our own is longer at about 10 – 20 microns. This is an awkward wavelength for observations from the Earth, as the Earth’s own thermal emission can swamp the distant signal of the planet.

Yet, being able to directly image temperate planets is an important technique for studying possible habitable worlds. As you move away from the star, the chances of the planet’s orbit transiting across the star’s surface from our view from Earth decreases. For a planet on a similar orbit to the Earth around a sun-like star, the probability is less than 0.5%. The only way to study many of these worlds may be if we can see them directly, and space-based observatories have been generally seen as the path to this kind of imaging.… Read more

How to Predict the Make-Up of Rocky Exoplanets Too Small and Distant to Directly Observe

The seven planets of the Trappist-1 solar system.  The first planets were discovered five years ago and others in 2017.  Trappist-1 is a dream system for researchers to study because it includes so many rocky planets.  The planets do, however, orbit very close to a relatively small and cool Red Dwarf star, which makes the system and its potential for habitability different than if they orbited a sun-like star. (NASA)

In trying to tease out what a planet is made of, its density is of great importance.   Scientists can use that measure  of density — the amount of matter contained in a given volume — to determine what ratio of a planet is likely is gas, or water, or rocks, or rocks and iron and more. They can even help determine if the planet has a central core.

So determining the density of exoplanets is a high priority and one that has been especially important for the Trappist-1 solar system, the amazing collection of seven “Earth-sized” rocky planets orbiting a Red Dwarf star some 40 light years away.

The Trappist-1 planets have been a major focus of study since its first planets were discovered in 2016, and now a new and rather surprising finding about the density of the planets has been accepted for publication in the Planetary Science Journal .  While the planets are somewhat different sizes, they appear to be all almost the exact same density.  This provides a goldmine of information for scientists.

Equally exciting, while the seven Trappist-1 planets have similar densities, they are 8% less dense than they would be if they had the same chemical composition as our planet.  It may not seem like a lot, but to astrophysicists it is.

“This is the information we needed to make hypotheses about their composition and understand how these planets differ from the rocky planets in our solar system,” said lead author Eric Agol of the University of Washington.

What Agol considers the team’s most robust conclusions:  The Trappist-1 planets have a “common make-up” just as the rocky planets in our solar system do, but are nonetheless in some significant ways different from our rocky planets.  “TRAPPIST-1 has a different ‘recipe’ for forming terrestrial planets, and a more uniform recipe as well,” he told me.

A planet’s density is determined not just by its composition, but also by its size: Gravity compresses the material a planet is made of, increasing the planet’s density.

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More Weird and Wild Planets

A world called TOI-849b could be the exposed, naked core of a former gas giant planet whose atmosphere was blasted away by its star.  Every day is a bad day on planet TOI-849b. . It hugs its star so tightly that a year – one trip around the star – takes less than a day. And it pays a high price for this close embrace: an estimated surface temperature of nearly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius) It’s a scorcher even compared to Venus, which is 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius). About half the mass of our own Saturn, this planet orbits a Sun-like star more than 700 light-years from Earth. (NASA/Exoplanet Exploration Program)

The more we learn about the billions upon billions of planets that orbit beyond our solar system, the more we are surprised by the wild menagerie of objects out there.  From the start, many of these untolled planets have been startling, paradigm-breaking,  mysterious, hellish, potentially habitable and just plain weird.  Despite the confirmed detection of more than 4,000 exoplanets, the job of finding and characterizing these worlds remains in its early phases.  You could make the argument that  learning a lot more about these distant exoplanets and their solar systems is not just one of the great tasks of future astronomy, but of future science.

And that is why Many Worlds is returning to the subject of “Weird Planets,” which first appeared in this column at the opening of 2019.  It has been the most viewed column in our archive, and a day seldom goes by without someone — or some many people — decide to read it.

So here is not a really a sequel, but rather a continuation of writing about this unendingly rich subject.  And as I will describe further on,  almost all of the planets on display so far have been detected and characterized without ever having been seen.  The characteristics and colors presented in these (mostly) artistic renderings are the result of indirect observing and discovery — measuring how much light dims when a faraway planet crosses its host star, or how much the planet’s gravity causes its sun to move.

As a result, these planets are sometimes called “small, black shadows.” Scientists can infer a lot from the indirect measurements they make and from the beginnings of the grand effort to spectroscopically read the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres. … Read more

The Planet Larger Than Its Star

Artist animation of WD 1856 b orbiting the white dwarf. Due to the tiny size of the white dwarf and close orbit of the planet, the animation is to scale. The slightly inclined orbit means that the planet does not entirely block the white dwarf’s light as it transits (Tasker).

It has been an exciting month for planets. Just days after the announcement of a detection of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, another first in planet discoveries was declared. The new find is the first planet observed to be orbiting a white dwarf; a dead star that is much smaller than the planet it hosts.

Planet WD 1856+534 b was first spotted by the NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and confirmed with a series of observations from ground-based telescopes. The results showed the light from a white dwarf being periodically dimmed by a staggering 56% for brief 8 minutes.

For comparison, one of the easiest exoplanet types to detect is a hot Jupiter that would typically cause a 1% dip in brightness of its star over a period of a few hours.

This suggested a Jupiter-sized planet was closely orbiting a white dwarf that was similar in size to the Earth. Light from the white dwarf is obscured each time the planet passes in front of (or transits) the dead star’s surface on its orbit. Interestingly, the light dip is shaped like the letter V, showing a gentle gradient decreasing and rising from the maximum occultation. The lack of a sharp drop in brightness implied the planet’s orbit was slightly inclined so that it grazed the white dwarf’s surface and only obscured part of the much smaller star.

Light dip (transit) observations of WD 1856 observed with the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) in visible light. The red curve is the best-fitting models. The V-shape suggests the planet is grazing the white dwarf and does not obscure it completely (Vanderburg et al. 2020, Figure 1a).

Although certainly unusual, WD 1856 b is not the first planet known to orbit a smaller star. The first extrasolar planets to be discovered orbit another type of stellar remnant known as a neutron star. While white dwarfs typically have sizes similar to a terrestrial planet, neutron stars have city-sized diameters of order 10 km.

The fact both these cases involve dead stars is no coincidence. In order to orbit, the mass of the planet must be much less than that of the star.… Read more

Close and Tranquil Solar System Has Astronomers Excited

An artist’s impression of the GJ 887 planetary system of super Earths. (Mark Garlick)

From the perspective of planet hunters and planet characterizers,  a desirable solar system to explore is one that is close to ours, that has a planet (or planets) in the star’s habitable zone,  and has a host star that is relatively quiet.  This is especially important with the very common red dwarf stars,  which are far less luminous than stars such as our sun but tend to send out many more powerful — and potentially planet sterilizing — solar flares.

The prolific members of the mostly European and Chilean Red Dots astronomy team believe they have found such a system about 11 light years away from us.  The system — GJ 887 — has an unusually quiet red dwarf host, has two planets for sure and another likely that orbits at a life-friendly 50-day orbit.  It is the 12th closest planetary system to our sun.

It is that potential third planet, which has shown up in some observations but not others, that would be of great interest.  Because it is so (relatively) close to Earth, it would be a planet where the chemical and thermal make-up of its atmosphere would likely be possible to measure.

The Red Dots team — which was responsible for the first detection of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri and also Barnard’s star — describes the system in an article in the journal Science.  Team leader Sandra Jeffers of Goettingen University in Germany said in an email that GJ 887  “will be an ideal target because it is such a quiet star — no starspots or energetic outbursts  or flares.”

In an accompanying Perspective article in Science,  Melvyn Davies of Lund University in Sweden wrote that “If further observations confirm the presence of the third planet in the habitable zone, then GJ 887 could become one of the most studied planetary systems in the solar neighborhood.”

An artist’s impression of a flaring red dwarf star and a nearby planet. Red dwarfs are by far the most common stars in the sky, and most have planetary systems.  But scientists are unsure if they can support a habitable planet because many send out more large and powerful flares than other types of stars, especially at the beginnings of their solar lives. (Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie/NASA)

GJ 877 is roughly half as massive as our sun — large for its type of star — and is the brightest red dwarf in the sky.… Read more

Have We Photographed Our Nearest Planetary System?

Artist impression of Proxima Centauri c. Press “HD” on the player for the best image quality (E. Tasker).

The discovery of Proxima Centauri b in 2016 caused a flood excitement. We had found an extrasolar planet around our nearest star, making this the closest possible world outside of our solar system!

But despite its proximity, discovering more about this planet is difficult. Proxima Centauri b was found via the radial velocity technique, which measures the star’s wobble due to the gravity of the orbiting planet. This technique gives a minimum mass, the average distance between the star and planet and the time for one orbit, but no details about conditions on the planet surface.

If the planet had transited its star, we might have tried detecting starlight that passed through the planet’s atmosphere. This technique is known as transit spectroscopy, and reveals the composition of a planet’s atmosphere by detecting what wavelengths of light are absorbed by the molecules in the planet’s air. But searches for a transit proved fruitless, suggesting the planet’s orbit did not pass in front of the star from our viewpoint.

The radial velocity technique measures the motion of the star due to the gravity of the planet. As the star moves away from the Earth, its light becomes stretched and redder. As it moves back towards Earth, the light shifts to bluer wavelengths. The technique gives the planet’s period, distance from the star and its minimum mass. (E. Tasker)

Another option for planet characterization is to capture a direct image of the planet. This is one of the most exciting observational techniques, as it reveals the planet itself, not its influence on the star. Temporal changes in the planet’s light could reveal surface features as the planet rotates, and if enough light is detected to analyze different wavelengths, then the atmospheric composition could be deduced.

But direct imaging requires that the planet’s light can be differentiated from the much brighter star. With our current instruments, Proxima Centauri b orbits too close to its star to be distinguished. This seemed to close the door on finding out more about our nearest neighbors, until the discovery of a second planet in the system was announced early this year.

Also identified via the radial velocity technique, Proxima Centauri c has a minimum mass of 5.8 Earth masses. It sits further out than its sibling, with a chilly orbit that takes 5.2 years.… Read more

Tatooine Worlds

Science fiction has become science.  No habitable planets orbiting two suns like the fictional Tatooine have been detected so far, but more than a dozen “circumbinary planets” have been identified and many more are predicted.  Exoplanets orbiting a host star that orbits its own companion star are even more common. (Lucasfilm)

When the the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, it featured the now-iconic two-sun, “circumbinary” planet Tatooine.  At that time astronomers didn’t really know if such solar systems existed, with more than one sun and at least one planet.

Indeed, the first extra-solar planet wasn’t detected until the early 1990s.  And the first actual circumbinary planet was detected in 2005, and it was a Jupiter-size planet orbiting a system composed of a sun-like star and a brown dwarf.  Tatooine was definitely not a Jupiter-size planet.

But since then, the presence and distribution of circumbinaries has grown to a dozen and some the planets discovered orbiting the two stars have been smaller.  The most recent discovery was announced this week and was made using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) space telescope

The new planet, called TOI (TESS Object of Interest)-1338 b, is about 6.9 times larger than Earth. It orbits its pair of host stars every 95 days, while the stars themselves orbit each other in 15 days.

As is common with binary stars, one is more massive and much brighter than the other (5976 K and 3657 K, respectively, with our sun at  5780 K),  and as the planet orbits around it blocks some of the light from the brighter star.

This transit allows astronomers to measure the size of the planet.  The transit — as scientific luck, or skill, would have it — was first found in the TESS data by a high school student working at NASA with over the summer,  Wolf Cukier

“I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circle around each other and from our view eclipse each other every orbit,” Cukier said. “About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338.”

“At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”

With all of the data available from observations past and current, planet hunting clearly isn’t the scientific Wild West that it used to be — although the results remain often eye-popping and surprising.… Read more

A Southern Sky Extravaganza From TESS

Candidate exoplanets as seen by TESS in a southern sky mosaic from 13 observing sectors. (NASA/MIT/TESS)

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has finished its one year full-sky observation of  Southern sky and has found hundreds of candidate exoplanets and 29 confirmed planets.  It is now maneuvering  its array of wide-field telescopes and cameras to focus on the northern sky to do the same kind of exploration.

At this turning point, NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — which played a major role in designing and now operating the mission — have put together mosaic images from the first year’s observations, and they are quite something.

Constructed from 208 TESS images taken during the mission’s first year of science operations, these images are a unique  space-based look at the entire Southern sky — including the Milky Way seen edgewise, the Large and Small Magellenic galaxies, and other large stars already known to have exoplanet.

“Analysis of TESS data focuses on individual stars and planets one at a time, but I wanted to step back and highlight everything at once, really emphasizing the spectacular view TESS gives us of the entire sky,” said Ethan Kruse, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow who assembled the mosaic at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Overlaying the figures of selected constellations helps clarify the scale of the TESS southern mosaic. TESS has discovered 29 exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, and more than 1,000 candidate planets astronomers are now investigating. NASA/MIT/TESS

The mission is designed to vastly increase the number of known exoplanets, which are now theorized to orbit all — or most — stars in the sky.

TESS searches for  the nearest and brightest main sequence stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which are the most favorable targets for detailed investigations.

This animation shows how a dip in the observed brightness of a star may indicate the presence of a planet passing in front of it, an occurrence known as a transit. This is how TESS identified planet.
(NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

While previous sky surveys with ground-based telescopes have mainly detected giant exoplanets, TESS will find many small planets around the nearest stars in the sky.  The mission will also provide prime targets for further characterization by the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as other large ground-based and space-based telescopes of the future.

The TESS observatory uses an array of wide-field cameras to perform a survey of 85% of the sky.… Read more

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