Category Archives: Exoplanets

ESO: VLT detects heaviest element ever found in an exoplanet atmosphere

A new report from European Southern Observatory (ESO):

Heaviest element yet detected in an exoplanet atmosphere

This artist’s impression shows an ultra-hot exoplanet, a planet beyond our Solar System, as it is about to transit in front of its host star. When the light from the star passes through the planet’s atmosphere, it is filtered by the chemical elements and molecules in the gaseous layer. With sensitive instruments, the signatures of those elements and molecules can be observed from Earth. Using the ESPRESSO instrument of ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have found the heaviest element yet in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, barium, in the two ultra-hot Jupiters WASP-76 b and WASP-121 b.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), astronomers have discovered the heaviest element ever found in an exoplanet atmosphere — barium. They were surprised to discover barium at high altitudes in the atmospheres of the ultra-hot gas giants WASP-76 b and WASP-121 b — two exoplanets, planets which orbit stars outside our Solar System. This unexpected discovery raises questions about what these exotic atmospheres may be like.

“The puzzling and counterintuitive part is: why is there such a heavy element in the upper layers of the atmosphere of these planets?”

says Tomás Azevedo Silva, a PhD student at the University of Porto and the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) in Portugal who led the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

WASP-76 b and WASP-121 b are no ordinary exoplanets. Both are known as ultra-hot Jupiters as they are comparable in size to Jupiter whilst having extremely high surface temperatures soaring above 1000°C. This is due to their close proximity to their host stars, which also means an orbit around each star takes only one to two days. This gives these planets rather exotic features; in WASP-76 b, for example, astronomers suspect it rains iron.

But even so, the scientists were surprised to find barium, which is 2.5 times heavier than iron, in the upper atmospheres of WASP-76 b and WASP-121 b.

“Given the high gravity of the planets, we would expect heavy elements like barium to quickly fall into the lower layers of the atmosphere,”

explains co-author Olivier Demangeon, a researcher also from the University of Porto and IA.

“This was in a way an ‘accidental’ discovery,” says Azevedo Silva. “We were not expecting or looking for barium in particular and had to cross-check that this was actually coming from the planet since it had never been seen in any exoplanet before.”

The fact that barium was detected in the atmospheres of both of these ultra-hot Jupiters suggests that this category of planets might be even stranger than previously thought. Although we do occasionally see barium in our own skies, as the brilliant green colour in fireworks, the question for scientists is what natural process could cause this heavy element to be at such high altitudes in these exoplanets.

​​“At the moment, we are not sure what the mechanisms are,”

explains Demangeon.

This illustration shows a night-side view of the exoplanet WASP-76 b. The ultra-hot giant exoplanet has a day side where temperatures climb above 2400 degrees Celsius, high enough to vaporise metals. Strong winds carry iron vapour to the cooler night side where it condenses into iron droplets. To the left of the image, we see the evening border of the exoplanet, where it transitions from day to night.

In the study of exoplanet atmospheres ultra-hot Jupiters are extremely useful. As Demangeon explains:

“Being gaseous and hot, their atmospheres are very extended and are thus easier to observe and study than those of smaller or cooler planets”.

Determining the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere requires very specialised equipment. The team used the ESPRESSO instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile to analyse starlight that had been filtered through the atmospheres of WASP-76 b and WASP-121 b. This made it possible to clearly detect several elements in them, including barium.

These new results show that we have only scratched the surface of the mysteries of exoplanets. With future instruments such as the high-resolution ArmazoNes high Dispersion Echelle Spectrograph (ANDES), which will operate on ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), astronomers will be able to study the atmospheres of exoplanets large and small, including those of rocky planets similar to Earth, in much greater depth and to gather more clues as to the nature of these strange worlds.

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ESO: ALMA observes largest molecule yet in a planet-forming disc

A new report from the European Southern Observatory (ESO):

Astronomers discover largest molecule yet in a planet-forming disc

This composite image features an artistic impression of the planet-forming disc around the IRS 48 star, also known as Oph-IRS 48. The disc contains a cashew-nut-shaped region in its southern part, which traps millimetre-sized dust grains that can come together and grow into kilometre-sized objects like comets, asteroids and potentially even planets. Recent observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) spotted several complex organic molecules in this region, including dimethyl ether, the largest molecule found in a planet-forming disc to date. The emission signaling the presence of this molecule (real observations shown in blue) is clearly stronger in the disc’s dust trap. A model of the molecule is also shown in this composite.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, researchers at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands have for the first time detected dimethyl ether in a planet-forming disc. With nine atoms, this is the largest molecule identified in such a disc to date. It is also a precursor of larger organic molecules that can lead to the emergence of life.

From these results, we can learn more about the origin of life on our planet and therefore get a better idea of the potential for life in other planetary systems. It is very exciting to see how these findings fit into the bigger picture,

says Nashanty Brunken, a Master’s student at Leiden Observatory, part of Leiden University, and lead author of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Dimethyl ether is an organic molecule commonly seen in star-forming clouds, but had never before been found in a planet-forming disc. The researchers also made a tentative detection of methyl formate, a complex molecule similar to dimethyl ether that is also a building block for even larger organic molecules.

It is really exciting to finally detect these larger molecules in discs. For a while we thought it might not be possible to observe them,”

says co-author Alice Booth, also a researcher at Leiden Observatory.

The molecules were found in the planet-forming disc around the young star IRS 48 (also known as Oph-IRS 48) with the help of ALMA, an observatory co-owned by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). IRS 48, located 444 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus, has been the subject of numerous studies because its disc contains an asymmetric, cashew-nut-shaped “dust trap”. This region, which likely formed as a result of a newly born planet or small companion star located between the star and the dust trap, retains large numbers of millimetre-sized dust grains that can come together and grow into kilometre-sized objects like comets, asteroids and potentially even planets.

These images from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) show where various gas molecules were found in the disc around the IRS 48 star, also known as Oph-IRS 48. The disc contains a cashew-nut-shaped region in its southern part, which traps millimetre-sized dust grains that can come together and grow into kilometre-sized objects like comets, asteroids and potentially even planets. Recent observations spotted several complex organic molecules in this region, including formaldehyde (H2CO; orange), methanol (CH3OH; green) and dimethyl ether (CH3OCH3; blue), the last being the largest molecule found in a planet-forming disc to date. The emission signaling the presence of these molecules is clearly stronger in the disc’s dust trap, while carbon monoxide gas (CO; purple) is present in the entire gas disc. The location of the central star is marked with a star in all four images. The dust trap is about the same size as the area taken up by the methanol emission, shown on the bottom left.

Many complex organic molecules, such as dimethyl ether, are thought to arise in star-forming clouds, even before the stars themselves are born. In these cold environments, atoms and simple molecules like carbon monoxide stick to dust grains, forming an ice layer and undergoing chemical reactions, which result in more complex molecules. Researchers recently discovered that the dust trap in the IRS 48 disc is also an ice reservoir, harbouring dust grains covered with this ice rich in complex molecules. It was in this region of the disc that ALMA has now spotted signs of the dimethyl ether molecule: as heating from IRS 48 sublimates the ice into gas, the trapped molecules inherited from the cold clouds are freed and become detectable.

What makes this even more exciting is that we now know these larger complex molecules are available to feed forming planets in the disc,” explains Booth. “This was not known before as in most systems these molecules are hidden in the ice.

The discovery of dimethyl ether suggests that many other complex molecules that are commonly detected in star-forming regions may also be lurking on icy structures in planet-forming discs. These molecules are the precursors of prebiotic molecules such as amino acids and sugars, which are some of the basic building blocks of life.

By studying their formation and evolution, researchers can therefore gain a better understanding of how prebiotic molecules end up on planets, including our own.

“We are incredibly pleased that we can now start to follow the entire journey of these complex molecules from the clouds that form stars, to planet-forming discs, and to comets. Hopefully with more observations we can get a step closer to understanding the origin of prebiotic molecules in our own Solar System,”

says Nienke van der Marel, a Leiden Observatory researcher who also participated in the study.

Annotated image from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) showing the dust trap in the disc that surrounds the system Oph-IRS 48. The dust trap provides a safe haven for the tiny dust particles in the disc, allowing them to clump together and grow to sizes that allow them to survive on their own. The green area is the dust trap, where the bigger particles accumulate. The size of the orbit of Neptune is shown in the upper left corner to show the scale.

Future studies of IRS 48 with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile and set to start operations later this decade, will allow the team to study the chemistry of the very inner regions of the disc, where planets like Earth may be forming.

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ESO: Third planet found at Proxima Centauri, the star nearest our Sun

A new report from the European Southern Observatory (ESO):

New planet detected around star closest to the Sun

This artist’s impression shows a close-up view of Proxima d, a planet candidate recently found orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The planet is believed to be rocky and to have a mass about a quarter that of Earth. Two other planets known to orbit Proxima Centauri are visible in the image too: Proxima b, a planet with about the same mass as Earth that orbits the star every 11 days and is within the habitable zone, and candidate Proxima c, which is on a longer five-year orbit around the star.

A team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile have found evidence of another planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Solar System. This candidate planet is the third detected in the system and the lightest yet discovered orbiting this star. At just a quarter of Earth’s mass, the planet is also one of the lightest exoplanets ever found.

The discovery shows that our closest stellar neighbour seems to be packed with interesting new worlds, within reach of further study and future exploration,”

explains João Faria, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, Portugal and lead author of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, lying just over four light-years away.

The newly discovered planet, named Proxima d, orbits Proxima Centauri at a distance of about four million kilometres, less than a tenth of Mercury’s distance from the Sun. It orbits between the star and the habitable zone — the area around a star where liquid water can exist at the surface of a planet — and takes just five days to complete one orbit around Proxima Centauri.

The star is already known to host two other planets: Proxima b, a planet with a mass comparable to that of Earth that orbits the star every 11 days and is within the habitable zone, and candidate Proxima c, which is on a longer five-year orbit around the star.

This image of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri AB also shows the much fainter red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The picture was created from pictures forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The blue halo around Alpha Centauri AB is an artifact of the photographic process, the star is really pale yellow in colour like the Sun.

Proxima b was discovered a few years ago using the HARPS instrument on ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope. The discovery was confirmed in 2020 when scientists observed the Proxima system with a new instrument on ESO’s VLT that had greater precision, the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO). It was during these more recent VLT observations that astronomers spotted the first hints of a signal corresponding to an object with a five-day orbit. As the signal was so weak, the team had to conduct follow-up observations with ESPRESSO to confirm that it was due to a planet, and not simply a result of changes in the star itself.

After obtaining new observations, we were able to confirm this signal as a new planet candidate,” Faria says. “I was excited by the challenge of detecting such a small signal and, by doing so, discovering an exoplanet so close to Earth.

At just a quarter of the mass of Earth, Proxima d is the lightest exoplanet ever measured using the radial velocity technique, surpassing a planet recently discovered in the L 98-59 planetary system. The technique works by picking up tiny wobbles in the motion of a star created by an orbiting planet’s gravitational pull. The effect of Proxima d’s gravity is so small that it only causes Proxima Centauri to move back and forth at around 40 centimetres per second (1.44 kilometres per hour).

This achievement is extremely important,” says Pedro Figueira, ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO in Chile. “It shows that the radial velocity technique has the potential to unveil a population of light planets, like our own, that are expected to be the most abundant in our galaxy and that can potentially host life as we know it.

This result clearly shows what ESPRESSO is capable of and makes me wonder about what it will be able to find in the future,” Faria adds.

ESPRESSO’s search for other worlds will be complemented by ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in the Atacama Desert, which will be crucial to discovering and studying many more planets around nearby stars.

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ESO: Rocky exoplanet with half the mass of Venus detected with VLT

Latest report from the European Southern Observatory (ESO):

New ESO observations show rocky exoplanet
has just half the mass of Venus

This artist’s impression shows L 98-59b, one of the planets in the L 98-59 system 35 light-years away. The system contains four confirmed rocky planets with a potential fifth, the furthest from the star, being unconfirmed. In 2021, astronomers used data from the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) instrument on ESO’s VLT to measure the mass of L 98-59b, finding it to be half that of Venus. This makes it the lightest planet measured to date using the radial velocity technique.

A team of astronomers have used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile to shed new light on planets around a nearby star, L 98-59, that resemble those in the inner Solar System. Amongst the findings are a planet with half the mass of Venus — the lightest exoplanet ever to be measured using the radial velocity technique — an ocean world, and a possible planet in the habitable zone.

“The planet in the habitable zone may have an atmosphere that could protect and support life,” 

says María Rosa Zapatero Osorio, an astronomer at the Centre for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, and one of the authors of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The results are an important step in the quest to find life on Earth-sized planets outside the Solar System. The detection of biosignatures on an exoplanet depends on the ability to study its atmosphere, but current telescopes are not large enough to achieve the resolution needed to do this for small, rocky planets. The newly studied planetary system, called L 98-59 after its star, is an attractive target for future observations of exoplanet atmospheres. Its orbits a star only 35 light-years away and has now been found to host rocky planets, like Earth or Venus, which are close enough to the star to be warm.

With the contribution of ESO’s VLT, the team was able to infer that three of the planets may contain water in their interiors or atmospheres. The two planets closest to the star in the L 98-59 system are probably dry, but might have small amounts of water, while up to 30% of the third planet’s mass could be water, making it an ocean world.

This infographic shows a comparison between the L 98-59 exoplanet system (top) with part of the inner Solar System (Mercury, Venus and Earth), highlighting the similarities between the two. L 98-59 contains four confirmed rocky planets (marked in colour in the top panel), orbiting a red-dwarf star 35 light-years away. The planet closest to the star is around half the mass of Venus, making it the lightest exoplanet ever detected using the radial velocity technique. Up to 30% of the third planet’s mass could be water, making it an ocean world. The existence of the fourth planet has been confirmed, but scientists don’t yet know its mass and radius (its possible size is indicated by a dotted line). The team also found hints of a potential fifth planet, the furthest from the star, though the team knows little about it. If confirmed, it would sit in the system’s habitable zone where liquid water could exist on its surface. The distances from the stars and between the planets in the infographic are not up to scale. The diagram has been scaled to make the habitable zone in both the Solar System and in L 98-59 coincide. As indicated by the infographic, which includes a temperature scale (in Kelvin [K]), the Earth and the fifth (unconfirmed) planet in L 98-59 receive similar amounts of light and heat from their respective stars. Assuming their atmospheres are similar, this fifth planet would have a similar average surface temperature to Earth and would support liquid water at its surface.
Furthermore, the team found “hidden” exoplanets that had not previously been spotted in this planetary system. They discovered a fourth planet and suspect there is a fifth, in a zone at the right distance from the star for liquid water to exist on its surface.

“We have hints of the presence of a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone of this system,”

explains Olivier Demangeon, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, University of Porto in Portugal and lead author of the new study.

The study represents a technical breakthrough, as astronomers were able to determine, using the radial velocity method, that the innermost planet in the system has just half the mass of Venus. This makes it the lightest exoplanet ever measured using this technique, which calculates the wobble of the star caused by the tiny gravitational tug of its orbiting planets.

The team used the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) instrument on ESO’s VLT to study L 98-59.

“Without the precision and stability provided by ESPRESSO this measurement would have not been possible,” says Zapatero Osorio. “This is a step forward in our ability to measure the masses of the smallest planets beyond the Solar System.”

The astronomers first spotted three of L 98-59’s planets in 2019, using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). This satellite relies on a technique called the transit method — where the dip in the light coming from the star caused by a planet passing in front of it is used to infer the properties of the planet — to find the planets and measure their sizes. However, it was only with the addition of radial velocity measurements made with ESPRESSO and its predecessor, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the ESO La Silla 3.6-metre telescope, that Demangeon and his team were able to find extra planets and measure the masses and radii of the first three.

“If we want to know what a planet is made of, the minimum that we need is its mass and its radius,” Demangeon explains.

The team hopes to continue to study the system with the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), while ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), under construction in the Chilean Atacama Desert and set to start observations in 2027, will also be ideal for studying these planets.

“The HIRES instrument on the ELT may have the power to study the atmospheres of some of the planets in the L 98-59 system, thus complementing the JWST from the ground,”

says Zapatero Osorio.

“This system announces what is to come,” adds Demangeon. “We, as a society, have been chasing terrestrial planets since the birth of astronomy and now we are finally getting closer and closer to the detection of a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone of its star, of which we could study the atmosphere.”

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ESO: Moon-forming disk observed around exoplanet

A new report from the European Southern Observatory (ESO):

Astronomers make first clear detection of a moon-forming disc around an exoplanet

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows wide (left) and close-up (right) views of the moon-forming disc surrounding PDS 70c, a young Jupiter-like planet nearly 400 light-years away. The close-up view shows PDS 70c and its circumplanetary disc centre-front, with the larger circumstellar ring-like disc taking up most of the right-hand side of the image. The star PDS 70 is at the centre of the wide-view image on the left. Two planets have been found in the system, PDS 70c and PDS 70b, the latter not being visible in this image. They have carved a cavity in the circumstellar disc as they gobbled up material from the disc itself, growing in size. In this process, PDS 70c acquired its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet and where moons can form. This circumplanetary disc is as large as the Sun-Earth distance and has enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner, astronomers have unambiguously detected the presence of a disc around a planet outside our Solar System for the first time. The observations will shed new light on how moons and planets form in young stellar systems.

“Our work presents a clear detection of a disc in which satellites could be forming,”

says Myriam Benisty, a researcher at the University of Grenoble, France, and at the University of Chile, who led the new research published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Our ALMA observations were obtained at such exquisite resolution that we could clearly identify that the disc is associated with the planet and we are able to constrain its size for the first time,”

she adds.

The disc in question, called a circumplanetary disc, surrounds the exoplanet PDS 70c, one of two giant, Jupiter-like planets orbiting a star nearly 400 light-years away. Astronomers had found hints of a “moon-forming” disc around this exoplanet before but, since they could not clearly tell the disc apart from its surrounding environment, they could not confirm its detection — until now.

In addition, with the help of ALMA, Benisty and her team found that the disc has about the same diameter as the distance from our Sun to the Earth and enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon.

But the results are not only key to finding out how moons arise.

“These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now,”

says Jaehan Bae, a researcher from the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, USA, and author on the study.

Planets form in dusty discs around young stars, carving out cavities as they gobble up material from this circumstellar disc to grow. In this process, a planet can acquire its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet by regulating the amount of material falling onto it. At the same time, the gas and dust in the circumplanetary disc can come together into progressively larger bodies through multiple collisions, ultimately leading to the birth of moons.

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows a close-up view on the moon-forming disc surrounding PDS 70c, a young Jupiter-like gas giant nearly 400 light-years away. It shows this planet and its disc centre-front, with the larger circumstellar ring-like disc taking up most of the right-hand side of the image. The dusty circumplanetary disc is as large as the Sun-Earth distance and has enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon.

But astronomers do not yet fully understand the details of these processes.

“In short, it is still unclear when, where, and how planets and moons form,”

explains ESO Research Fellow Stefano Facchini, also involved in the research.

“More than 4000 exoplanets have been found until now, but all of them were detected in mature systems. PDS 70b and PDS 70c, which form a system reminiscent of the Jupiter-Saturn pair, are the only two exoplanets detected so far that are still in the process of being formed,”

explains Miriam Keppler, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and one of the co-authors of the study [1].

“This system therefore offers us a unique opportunity to observe and study the processes of planet and satellite formation,”

Facchini adds.

PDS 70b and PDS 70c, the two planets making up the system, were first discovered using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and their unique nature means they have been observed with other telescopes and instruments many times since [2].

The latest high resolution ALMA observations have now allowed astronomers to gain further insights into the system. In addition to confirming the detection of the circumplanetary disc around PDS 70c and studying its size and mass, they found that PDS 70b does not show clear evidence of such a disc, indicating that it was starved of dust material from its birth environment by PDS 70c.

An even deeper understanding of the planetary system will be achieved with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction on Cerro Armazones in the Chilean Atacama desert.

“The ELT will be key for this research since, with its much higher resolution, we will be able to map the system in great detail,”

says co-author Richard Teague, a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, USA. In particular, by using the ELT’s Mid-infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS), the team will be able to look at the gas motions surrounding PDS 70c to get a full 3D picture of the system.

Notes

[1] Despite the similarity with the Jupiter-Saturn pair, note that the disc around PDS 70c is about 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings.

[2] PDS 70b was discovered using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument, while PDS 70c was found using the VLT’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE). The two-planet system has been investigated using the X-shooter instrument too, also installed on ESO’s VLT.

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