Category Archives: Exoplanets

Video: “The Golden Age of Exoplanet Exploration”

At a public seminar at NASA JPL, Jessie Christiansen and Karl Stapelfeldt of Caltech and NASA talked about the exoplanets discoveries made thus far and those to be made by new observatories:

Since the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star in 1995, several thousand more have been discovered. We’ve peered into the atmospheres of some, and we’ve found whole families of planets orbiting strange stars — many in configurations starkly different from our own. We’ve learned a lot from NASA’s Kepler mission, which launched 10 years ago and ceased operations in November 2018. A new NASA planet-hunting spacecraft called TESS, which began science operations as Kepler was winding down, will give us thousands of new discoveries in the coming years. And the Spitzer Space Telescope has provided us valuable insights into what these worlds might be like. This show will look at the state of exoplanet science and give us a view of what future discoveries may be around the corner.

This National Geo video gives a brief overview of exoplanets and how they are found and studied:

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

ESO: Evidence found for super-earth orbiting Barnard’s Star

Here is the latest ESO (European Southern Observatory) report:

Super-Earth Orbiting Barnard’s Star
Red Dots campaign uncovers compelling evidence
of exoplanet around closest single star to Sun

The nearest single star to the Sun hosts an exoplanet at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth — a so-called super-Earth. Data from a worldwide array of telescopes, including ESO’s planet-hunting HARPS instrument, have revealed this frozen, dimly lit world. The newly discovered planet is the second-closest known exoplanet to the Earth and orbits the fastest moving star in the night sky. This image shows an artist’s impression of the planet’s surface. [Higher-res images]

The nearest single star to the Sun hosts an exoplanet at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth — a so-called super-Earth. One of the largest observing campaigns to date using data from a world-wide array of telescopes, including ESO’s planet-hunting HARPS instrument, have revealed this frozen, dimly lit world. The newly discovered planet is the second-closest known exoplanet to the Earth. Barnard’s star is the fastest moving star in the night sky.

A planet has been detected orbiting Barnard’s Star, a mere 6 light-years away. This breakthrough — announced in a paper published today in the journal Nature — is a result of the Red Dots and CARMENES projects, whose search for local rocky planets has already uncovered a new world orbiting our nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri.

The planet, designated Barnard’s Star b, now steps in as the second-closest known exoplanet to Earth [1]. The gathered data indicate that the planet could be a super-Earth, having a mass at least 3.2 times that of the Earth, which orbits its host star in roughly 233 days. Barnard’s Star, the planet’s host star, is a red dwarf, a cool, low-mass star, which only dimly illuminates this newly-discovered world. Light from Barnard’s Star provides its planet with only 2% of the energy the Earth receives from the Sun.

Despite being relatively close to its parent star — at a distance only 0.4 times that between Earth and the Sun — the exoplanet lies close to the snow line, the region where volatile compounds such as water can condense into solid ice. This freezing, shadowy world could have a temperature of –170 ℃, making it inhospitable for life as we know it.

Named for astronomer E. E. Barnard, Barnard’s Star is the closest single star to the Sun. While the star itself is ancient — probably twice the age of our Sun — and relatively inactive, it also has the fastest apparent motion of any star in the night sky [2]. Super-Earths are the most common type of planet to form around low-mass stars such as Barnard’s Star, lending credibility to this newly discovered planetary candidate. Furthermore, current theories of planetary formation predict that the snow line is the ideal location for such planets to form.

Previous searches for a planet around Barnard’s Star have had disappointing results — this recent breakthrough was possible only by combining measurements from several high-precision instruments mounted on telescopes all over the world [3].

“After a very careful analysis, we are 99% confident that the planet is there,” stated the team’s lead scientist, Ignasi Ribas (Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences, CSIC in Spain). “However, we’ll continue to observe this fast-moving star to exclude possible, but improbable, natural variations of the stellar brightness which could masquerade as a planet.”

Among the instruments used were ESO’s famous planet-hunting HARPS and UVES spectrographs.

“HARPS played a vital part in this project. We combined archival data from other teams with new, overlapping, measurements of Barnard’s star from different facilities,”

commented Guillem Anglada Escudé (Queen Mary University of London), co-lead scientist of the team behind this result [4].

“The combination of instruments was key to allowing us to cross-check our result.”

The astronomers used the Doppler effect to find the exoplanet candidate. While the planet orbits the star, its gravitational pull causes the star to wobble. When the star moves away from the Earth, its spectrum redshifts; that is, it moves towards longer wavelengths. Similarly, starlight is shifted towards shorter, bluer, wavelengths when the star moves towards Earth.

Astronomers take advantage of this effect to measure the changes in a star’s velocity due to an orbiting exoplanet — with astounding accuracy. HARPS can detect changes in the star’s velocity as small as 3.5 km/h — about walking pace. This approach to exoplanet hunting is known as the radial velocity method, and has never before been used to detect a similar super-Earth type exoplanet in such a large orbit around its star.

“We used observations from seven different instruments, spanning 20 years of measurements, making this one of the largest and most extensive datasets ever used for precise radial velocity studies.” explained Ribas. ”The combination of all data led to a total of 771 measurements — a huge amount of information!”

“We have all worked very hard on this breakthrough,” concluded Anglada-Escudé. “This discovery is the result of a large collaboration organised in the context of the Red Dots project, that included contributions from teams all over the world. Follow-up observations are already underway at different observatories worldwide.”

This wide-field image shows the surroundings of the red dwarf known as Barnard’s Star in the constellation of Ophiuchus (the Serpent-Bearer). This picture was created from material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The centre of the image shows Barnard’s Star captured in three different exposures. The star is the fastest moving star in the night sky and its large apparent motion can be seen as its position changes between successive observations — shown in red, yellow and blue. [Higher-res images]
Notes
[1] The only stars closer to the Sun make up the triple star system Alpha Centauri. In 2016, astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to Earth in this system, Proxima Centauri. That planet lies just over 4 light-years from Earth, and was discovered by a team led by Guillem Anglada Escudé.

[2] The total velocity of Barnard’s Star with respect to the Sun is about 500 000 km/h. Despite this blistering pace, it is not the fastest known star. What makes the star’s motion noteworthy is how fast it appears to move across the night sky as seen from the Earth, known as its apparent motion. Barnard’s Star travels a distance equivalent to the Moon’s diameter across the sky every 180 years — while this may not seem like much, it is by far the fastest apparent motion of any star.

[3] The facilities used in this research were: HARPS at the ESO 3.6-metre telescope; UVES at the ESO VLT; HARPS-N at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo; HIRES at the Keck 10-metre telescope; PFS at the Carnegie’s Magellan 6.5-m telescope; APF at the 2.4-m telescope at Lick Observatory; and CARMENES at the Calar Alto Observatory. Additionally, observations were made with the 90-cm telescope at the Sierra Nevada Observatory, the 40-cm robotic telescope at the SPACEOBS observatory, and the 80-cm Joan Oró Telescope of the Montsec Astronomical Observatory (OAdM).

[4] The story behind this discovery will be explored in more detail in this week’s ESOBlog.

Links

 

Misc: Space visionaries, Satellite imagery in journalism, and Kepler retires

Some miscellaneous items of interest:

** The Return of the Space Visionaries – Rand Simberg/The New Atlantis – An excellent overview of the history and status of US human spaceflight and how commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are taking the lead in the move to settle the solar system:

Musk talks about humanity being a multi-planet species, in part as an insurance policy against earthly disasters, whether natural or manmade; he is particularly concerned about the potential danger to humanity posed by artificial intelligence. But he seems to consider two — Earth and Mars — to be a sufficient number for “multi.” Musk could in fact be accused of an extension of what Carl Sagan called “planetary chauvinism” — the belief that life can thrive only on planets. But many analysts, I included, don’t understand the motivation, once having finally escaped the deep gravity well that has confined us to the planet on which we evolved, to dive down into another, albeit a shallower one.

By contrast, Bezos, as noted, aims for a massive human expansion, and not only to many other planets but to inhabitance of space itself. Wealthier than Musk — on some days he is the world’s richest person — Bezos is also more willing to spend his own money. Last November he sold a billion dollars’ worth of Amazon stock and claims to intend to do the same every year to provide the rocket company with its annual stipend, and he recently built a large facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin the manufacture of his large orbital rockets. Musk, on the other hand, always prefers, if he can find a way, to fund his dreams using OPM — Other Peoples’ Money. In the case of Tesla and its subsidiary SolarCity, which sells solar panels for home and commercial use, he’s done it with loans from Washington (which he has since paid off), various government subsidies for the production of electric cars, and tax credits offered to people buying electric cars or installing solar panels. In the case of SpaceX, extra funding has come, albeit in this case in exchange for providing a direct service, from NASA and U.S. Air Force contracts.

Over a decade and a half since both men launched their space companies, they have made significant progress in reducing the cost of getting to suborbital and orbital space. If their plans for large reusable launch systems come to fruition in the next few years, with SpaceX’s BFR and possibly Blue Origin’s New Armstrong offering larger payload capacities than NASA’s non-reusable Space Launch System, they may well render it obsolete before the full Block 2 version flies. (The planned first flight of the initial Block 1 configuration of SLS has slipped to the end of 2019.) Before its second flight — probably no sooner than a year after its first — it may well be canceled for good, not to be resurrected, perhaps finally putting a stake through the heart of Apolloism.

** Satellite imagery for journalism: Why a picture is worth a thousand words – Geospatial World – A nice overview of how journalists are learning to use images taken by by satellites to investigate war crimes, environmental destruction, illegal fishing and many other

In July 2018, a disturbing video began circulating on social media. It shows two women and two young children being led at gunpoint away from a village by a group of soldiers. The victims are blindfolded before they are shot point blank 22 times. The social media posts claimed them to be from Cameroon but the government of Cameroon initially dismissed the video as “fake news”.

The video showed a terrain that could be from anywhere in the world, and the people could be anywhere from Africa. But BBC Africa Eye did a thorough investigation through forensic analysis of the footage. Among other things, they poured through satellite imagery of many years trying to match them with the landmarks in the video to prove exactly where and when this incident took place and who were responsible. The Cameroon government was forced to issue a statement clarifying their earlier stand and announced that a number of soldiers have been arrested and are under investigation now.

Satellite imagery has become an indispensable tool in journalism. Be it fact-finding or gauging the impact of a particular situation, reporting on climate events or conflict zones, because of the unbiased insights they provide, they are being extensively used by professional journalists today.

** The Kepler space telescope has retired from exoplanet finding after running out of station-keeping fuel. Here Robert Picardo pays tribute to a very successful mission: Farewell, Kepler – The Planetary Post with Robert Picardo

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Telescopes and Binoculars at Amazon

Hubble: Observations indicate a Neptune-sized moon orbiting Jupiter-sized exoplanet

Researchers using the Hubble telescope appear to have observed a gas-giant sized Moon orbiting an even larger planet in another star system:

Hubble finds compelling evidence for a moon outside the Solar System
Neptune-sized moon orbits Jupiter-sized planet

This artist’s impression depicts the exomoon candidate Kepler-1625b-i, the planet it is orbiting and the star in the centre of the star system. Kepler-1625b-i is the first exomoon candidate and, if confirmed, the first moon to be found outside the Solar System. Like many exoplanets, Kepler-1625b-i was discovered using the transit method. Exomoons are difficult to find because they are smaller than their companion planets, so their transit signal is weak, and their position in the system changes with each transit because of their orbit. This requires extensive modelling and data analysis. [Higher-res images]
Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and older data from the Kepler Space Telescope two astronomers have found the first compelling evidence for a moon outside our own Solar System. The data indicate an exomoon the size of Neptune, in a stellar system 8000 light-years from Earth. The new results are presented in the journal Science Advances.

The hunt for exoplanets — planets outside our own Solar System — provided its first results only 30 years ago. While astronomers now find these planets on a regular basis, the search for moons orbiting exoplanets wasn’t successful — until today.

This animation demonstrates how the measured light curve from the star Kepler-1625b led to the conclusion that the system may consist of not only a planet, but also at least one moon.

When the planet moves in front of its parent star a tiny portion of its light is blocked by the disc of the planet, so we observe a dimming of the light from the star. Right after the exoplanet has finished its transit the starlight is seen to dim slightly again, suggesting the presence of a moon trailing the planet. Credit: ESA/Hubble, L. Calçada

In 2017 NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope detected hints of an exomoon orbiting the planet Kepler-1625b. Now, two scientists from Columbia University in New York (USA) have used the incomparable capabilities of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the star Kepler-1625, 8000 light-years away, and its planet in more detail. The new observations made with Hubble show compelling evidence for a large exomoon orbiting the only known planet of Kepler-1625. If confirmed, this would be the first discovery of a moon outside our Solar System.

The candidate moon, with the designation Kepler-1625b-i, is unusual because of its large size; it is comparable in diameter to the planet Neptune. Such gargantuan moons are unknown in our own Solar System.

“This may yield new insights into the development of planetary systems and may cause astronomers to revisit theories of how moons form,”

Alex Teachey, a graduate student who led the study, explained excitedly [1].

Like its moon, Kepler-1625b is also bigger than its counterparts in the Solar System. The exoplanet is a gas giant, several times more massive than Jupiter [2]. It orbits its parent star at a distance similar to the distance between the Sun and Earth, which puts it — and its candidate moon — at the inner edge of the habitable zone of the star system [3].

To find evidence for the existence of the exomoon, the team observed the planet while it was in transit in front of its parent star, causing a dimming of the starlight.

“We saw little deviations and wobbles in the light curve that caught our attention,”

David Kipping, second author of the study, said.

The planet was observed by Hubble before and during its 19-hour-long transit. After the transit ended, Hubble detected a second and much smaller decrease in the star’s brightness approximately 3.5 hours later, consistent with the effect of a moon trailing the planet.

“It was definitely a shocking moment to see that light curve — my heart started beating a little faster and I just kept looking at that signature,”

David Kipping described his feelings. Unfortunately, the scheduled Hubble observations ended before the complete transit of the moon could be captured.

In addition to this second dip in the light curve, Hubble provided compelling supporting evidence for the moon hypothesis by detecting the planet’s transit more than an hour earlier than predicted. This is consistent with a model of the system in which the planet and its moon orbit a common centre of gravity, causing the planet to wobble away from its predicted location [4].

In principle this anomaly could also be caused by the gravitational pull of a hypothetical second planet in the system, but the Kepler Space Telescope found no evidence for additional planets around the star during its four year mission. Still, further observations by Hubble are needed to fully confirm the existence of Kepler-1625b-i.

“If confirmed, Kepler-1625b-i will certainly provide an interesting puzzle for theorists to solve,” said Kipping. Teachey concluded: “It is an exciting reminder of how little we really know about distant planetary systems and the great spirit of discovery exoplanetary science embodies.”

Notes

[1] The moons of Jupiter and Saturn likely formed through the agglomeration into a disc of material orbiting the planets, so it is possible that this exomoon also formed in a circumplanetary disc. Another possibility is that a passing object was captured by the planet’s gravity. Tidal forces between the two objects would rob momentum from the less massive companion and eventually pull it into a permanent orbit. There are no indications of tidal capture among our Solar System’s moons. In the case of the Earth–Moon system, an early collision with a larger body is hypothesised to have blasted off material that later coalesced into a moon. However, Kepler-1625b and its candidate moon are gaseous, not rocky, so such a collision would not have led to the condensation of a satellite.

[2] Despite its size, the mass of the candidate moon is estimated to be only 1.5 percent of the mass of its companion planet. This value is close to the mass ratio between Earth and the Moon.

[3] While both the planet and its candidate moon are within the habitable zone, where moderate temperatures allow for the existence of liquid water, both bodies are considered to be gaseous and therefore unsuitable for life as we know it.

[4] A distant observer watching the Earth and Moon transit the Sun would note similar anomalies in the timing of Earth’s transit.

More information

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The results were presented in the paper Evidence for a large exomoon orbiting Kepler-1625b in the journal Science Advances.

The team of astronomers in this study consists of Alex Teachey and David M. Kipping (Columbia University, New York, USA).

Image credit: NASA, ESA

ESO: VLT captures first confirmed image of a planet forming

A new report from ESO (European Southern Observatory):

First Confirmed Image of Newborn Planet Caught with ESO’s VLT
Spectrum reveals cloudy atmosphere

This spectacular image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image, which is blacked out by the coronagraph mask used to block the blinding light of the central star. [Higher-res images]
SPHERE, a planet-hunting instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, has captured the first confirmed image of a planet caught in the act of forming in the dusty disc surrounding a young star. The young planet is carving a path through the primordial disc of gas and dust around the very young star PDS 70. The data suggest that the planet’s atmosphere is cloudy.

Astronomers led by a group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany have captured a spectacular snapshot of planetary formation around the young dwarf star PDS 70. By using the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) — one of the most powerful planet-hunting instruments in existence — the international team has made the first robust detection of a young planet, named PDS 70b, cleaving a path through the planet-forming material surrounding the young star [1].

The SPHERE instrument also enabled the team to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths, which allowed properties of its atmosphere to be deduced.

The planet stands out very clearly in the new observations, visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened centre of the image. It is located roughly three billion kilometres from the central star, roughly equivalent to the distance between Uranus and the Sun. The analysis shows that PDS 70b is a giant gas planet with a mass a few times that of Jupiter. The planet’s surface has a temperature of around 1000°C, making it much hotter than any planet in our own Solar System.

This colourful image shows the sky around the faint orange dwarf star PDS 70 (in the middle of the image). The bright blue star to the right is χ Centauri. [Larger images]
The dark region at the centre of the image is due to a coronagraph, a mask which blocks the blinding light of the central star and allows astronomers to detect its much fainter disc and planetary companion. Without this mask, the faint light from the planet would be utterly overwhelmed by the intense brightness of PDS 70.

“These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them,” explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet. “The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

The discovery of PDS 70’s young companion is an exciting scientific result that has already merited further investigation. A second team, involving many of the same astronomers as the discovery team, including Keppler, has in the past months followed up the initial observations to investigate PDS 70’s fledgling planetary companion in more detail. They not only made the spectacularly clear image of the planet shown here, but were even able to obtain a spectrum of the planet. Analysis of this spectrum indicated that its atmosphere is cloudy.

PDS 70’s planetary companion has sculpted a transition disc — a protoplanetary disc with a giant “hole” in the centre. These inner gaps have been known about for decades and it has been speculated that they were produced by disc-planet interaction. Now we can see the planet for the first time.

Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution,” comments André Müller, leader of the second team to investigate the young planet. “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.

By determining the planet’s atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers are able to test theoretical models of planet formation.

This glimpse of the dust-shrouded birth of a planet was only possible thanks to the impressive technological capabilities of ESO’s SPHERE instrument, which studies exoplanets and discs around nearby stars using a technique known as high-contrast imaging — a challenging feat. Even when blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph, SPHERE still has to use cleverly devised observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around bright young stars [2] at multiple wavelengths and epochs.

Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of the teams, summarises the scientific adventure:

After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now SPHERE enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!

Notes
[1] The disc and planet images and the planet’s spectrum have been captured in the course of the two survey programmes called SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) and DISK (sphere survey for circumstellar DISK). SHINE aims to image 600 young nearby stars in the near-infrared using SPHERE’s high contrast and high angular resolution to discover and characterise new exoplanets and planetary systems. DISK explores known, young planetary systems and their circumstellar discs to study the initial conditions of planetary formation and the evolution of planetary architectures.

[2] In order to tease out the weak signal of the planet next to the bright star, astronomers use a sophisticated method that benefits from the Earth’s rotation. In this observing mode, SPHERE continuously takes images of the star over a period of several hours, while keeping the instrument as stable as possible. As a consequence, the planet appears to slowly rotate, changing its location on the image with respect to the stellar halo. Using elaborate numerical algorithms, the individual images are then combined in such a way that all parts of the image that appear not to move during the observation, such as the signal from the star itself, are filtered. This leaves only those that do apparently move — making the planet visible.

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