Our Ever-Growing Menagerie of Exoplanets

While we have never seen an exoplanet with anything near this kind of detail, scientists and artists now do know enough to represent them with characteristics that are plausible, given what is known about them..  (NASA)

With so many exoplanets already detected, with the pace of discovery continuing to be so fast, and with efforts to find more distant worlds so constant and global,  it’s easy to become somewhat blase´ about new discoveries.  After so many “firsts,” and so many different kinds of planets found in very different ways, it certainly seems that some of the thrill may be gone.

Surely the detection of a clearly “Earth-like planet” would cause new excitement — one that is not only orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star but also has signs of a potentially nurturing atmosphere in a generally supportive cosmic neighborhood.

But while many an exoplanet has been described as somewhat “Earth-like” and potentially habitable, further observation has consistently reduced the possibility of the planets actually hosting some form of biology.  The technology and knowledge base needed to find distant life is surely advancing, but it may well still have a long way to go.

In just the last few days, however, a slew of discoveries have been reported that highlight the allure and science of our new Exoplanet Era.  They may not be blockbusters by themselves, but they are together part of an immense scientific exploration under way, one that is re-shaping our understanding of the cosmos and preparing us for bigger discoveries and insights to come.


Already 3,940 exoplanets have been identified (as of April 17) with an additional 3,504 candidates waiting to be confirmed or discarded.  this is but the start since it is widely held now that virtually every star out there has a planet, or planets, orbiting it.   That’s billions of billions of planets.  This image is a collection of NASA exoplanet renderings.

What I have in mind are these discoveries:

  • The first Earth-sized planet detected by NASA’s year-old orbiting telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.)  TESS is designed to find planets orbiting massive stars in our near neighborhood, and it has already made 10 confirmed discoveries.  But finding a small exoplanet — 85 percent the size of Earth — is a promising result for a mission designed to not only locate as many as 20,000 new exoplanets, but to find 500 to 1,000 the rough size of Earth or SuperEarth. 
Read more

NASA’s Planet-Hunter TESS Has Just Been Launched to Check Out the Near Exoplanet Neighborhood


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket transporting the TESS satellite lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, April 18, 2018. The space telescope will survey almost the entire sky, staring at the brightest, closest stars in an effort to find any planets that might be encircling them. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On January 5, 2010, NASA issued  landmark press release : the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered its first five new extra-solar planets.

The previous twenty years had seen the discovery of just over 400 planets beyond the solar system. The majority of these new worlds were Jupiter-mass gas giants, many bunched up against their star on orbits far shorter than that of Mercury. We had learnt that our planetary system was not alone in the Galaxy, but small rocky worlds on temperate orbits might still have been rare.

Based on just six weeks of data, these first discoveries from Kepler were also hot Jupiters; the easiest planets to find due to their large size and swiftly repeating signature as they zipped around the star. But expectations were high that this would be just the beginning.

“We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect,” said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters at the time the discovery was announced. “It’s only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog.”

Morse’s prediction was to prove absolutely right. Now at the end of its life, the Kepler Space Telescope has found 2,343 confirmed planets, 30 of which are smaller than twice the size of the Earth and in the so-called “Habitable Zone”, meaning they receive similar levels of insolation –the amount of solar radiation reaching a given area–to our own planet.

Yet, the question remains: were any of these indeed Earth analogs?

In just a few decades, thanks to Kepler, the Hubble Space Telescope and scores of astronomers at ground-based observatories, we have gone from suspecting the presence of exoplanets to knowing there are more exoplanets than stars in our galaxy. (NASA/Ames Research Station; Jessie Dotson and Wendy Stenzel)

It was a question that Kepler was not equipped to answer. Kepler identifies the presence of a planet by looking for the periodic dip in starlight as a planet passes across the star’s surface.… Read more

The Just-Approved European ARIEL Mission Will Be First Dedicated to Probing Exoplanet Atmospheres


The Ariel space telescope will explore the atmospheres of exoplanets. (Artist impression, ESA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the ARIEL space mission—the world’s first dedicated exoplanet atmosphere sniffer— to fly in 2028.

ARIEL stands for the “Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-Survey mission.” It is a space telescope that can detect which atoms and molecules are present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

The mission was selected as a medium class mission in the ESA Cosmic Vision program; the agency’s decadal plan for space missions that spans 2015 – 2025.

One of the central themes for Cosmic Vision is uncovering the conditions for planet formation and the origins of life. This has resulted in three dedicated exoplanet missions within the same decadal plan. ARIEL will join CHEOPS (in the small class mission category) and PLATO (another medium class mission) in studying worlds beyond our own sun.

Yet ARIEL is a different type of telescope from the other exoplanet-focused missions. To understand why, we need to examine what properties we can observe of these distance exo-worlds.

Exoplanet missions can be broadly divided into two types. The first type are the exoplanet hunter missions that search the skies for new worlds.

These are spacecraft and instruments such as the NASA Kepler Space Telescope. Since it launched in 2009, Kepler has been an incredibly prolific planet hunter. The telescope has found thousands of planets, modeled their orbits and told us about the distribution of their sizes.

From Kepler, we have learnt that planet formation is common, that it can occur around stars far different from our own sun, and that these worlds can have a vast range of sizes and myriad of orbits quite unlike our own Solar System.


Current and future (or proposed) space missions with capacities to identify and characterize exoplanets. (NASA,ESA: T. Wynne/JPL, composited by Barbara Aulicino)


However, the information Kepler is able to provide about individual planets is very limited. The telescope monitors stars for the tiny drop in light as the planet crosses (or “transits”) the star’s surface. From this, astronomers can measure the radius of the planet and its orbital period but nothing about the planet’s surface conditions.

The result is a little like knowing the number of students and distribution of grades in a particular school, but having no idea if the student who sits in the third row actually likes math.… Read more

Storming the One-Meter-Per-Second Barrier

Kitt Peak National Observatory mountain top at Dusk looking north. Visible in the picture are the NOAO 4-meter Mayall, the Steward Observatory 90-inch, the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Spacewatch Telescopes, LOTIS, 0.4-meter Visitor Center Telescope, Case Western Reserve University Observatory and the SARA Observatory. Credit: P. Marenfeld (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Kitt Peak National Observatory, on the Tohono O’odham reservation outside Tucson, will be home to a next-generation spectrometer and related system which will allow astronomers to detect much smaller exoplanets through the radial velocity method.  P. Marenfeld (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

When the first exoplanet was identified via the radial velocity method, the Swiss team was able to detect a wobble in the star 51 Pegasi at a rate of 50 meters per second.   The wobble is the star’s movement back and forth caused by the gravitational pull of the planet, and in that first case it was dramatic — the effects of a giant Jupiter-sized planet orbiting extremely close to the star.

Many of the early exoplanet discoveries were of similarly large planets close to their host stars, but it wasn’t because there are so many of them in the cosmos.  Rather, it was a function of the capabilities of the spectrographs and other instruments used to view the star.  They were pioneering breakthroughs, but they didn’t have the precision needed to measure wobbles other than the large, dramatic ones caused by a close-in, huge planet.

That was the mid 1990s, and radial velocity astronomers have worked tirelessly since to “beat down” that 50 meters per second number.  And twenty years later, radial velocity astronomers using far more precise instruments and more refined techniques have succeeded substantially:  1 meter per second of wobble is now achieved for the quietest stars.  That has vastly improved their ability to find smaller exoplanets further from their stars and is a major achievement.  But it has nonetheless been a major frustration for astronomers because to detect terrestrial exoplanets in the Earth-sized range, they have to get much more precise  — in the range of tens of centimeters per second.

A number of efforts to build systems that can get that low are underway, most notably the ESPRESSO spectrograph scheduled to begin work on the High Accuracy Radial Vlocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) in Chile next year. Then earlier this month an ambitious NASA-National Science Foundation project was awarded to Penn State University to join the race.  The next-generation spectrograph is scheduled to be finished in 2019 and installed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and its stated goal is to reach the 20 to 30 centimeters per second range.

Suvrath Mahadevan, an assistant professor at Penn State, is principal investigator for the project.  It is called NEID, which means ‘to see’ in the language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land the Kitt Peak observatory is located.… Read more

Hunting for Exoplanets Via TESS


The TESS satellite, which will launch in 2017, will use four cameras to search for exoplanets around bright nearby stars. MIT

The TESS satellite, which will launch in 2017, will use four cameras to search for exoplanets around bright nearby stars. MIT initially proposed the mission, and it was approved in 2013.  (MIT)

Seven years ago this month the Kepler spacecraft launched into space – the first NASA mission dedicated to searching for planets around distant stars. The goal was to conduct a census of these exoplanets, to learn whether planets are common or rare. And in particular, to understand whether planets like Earth are common or rare.

With the discovery and confirmation of over 1,000 exoplanets (and thousands more exoplanet candidates that have not yet been confirmed), Kepler has taught us that planets are indeed common, and scientists have been able to make new inferences about how planetary systems form and evolve. But the planets found by Kepler are almost exclusively around distant, faint stars, and the observations needed to further study and characterize these planets are challenging. Enter TESS.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is a NASA Explorer mission designed to search for new exoplanets around bright, nearby stars. The method that TESS will use is identical to that used by Kepler – it looks for planets that transit in front of their host star. Imagine that you’re looking at a star, and that star has planets around it.

If the orbit of the planet is aligned correctly, then once per “year” of the planet (i.e. once per orbit), the planet will pass in front of the star. As the planet moves in front of the star, it blocks a small fraction of the light, so the star appears to get slightly fainter. As the planet moves out of transit, the star returns to normal brightness. We can see an example of this in our own solar system on May 9, 2016, as Mercury passes in front of the Sun.


A small dip in the amount of light emanating from a star tells astronomers that a planet may well be crossing in front of it.

We can learn a lot from observing the transits of a planet. First, we can learn the size of a planet – the bigger the planet, the more light it will block, and the larger the “dip” in the brightness of the host star. Second, we can learn how long the planet’s year is – since it only passes in front of the star once per orbit, the time between transits is the planet’s year.… Read more

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