The Solar System furnishes the most familiar planetary architecture: many planets, orbiting nearly coplanar to one another. We can examine the composition and atmospheres of the Solar System planets in detail, even occasionally in situ. Studies of planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets), in contrast, only begin to approach the precision of humanity’s knowledge of Earth five hundred years ago. I will describe a two-pronged approach to the study of exoplanets.
One approach involves time-intensive investigations of individual planets to eke out bulk density or single molecules in the planetary atmosphere.
Another involves studies of the ensemble properties of planetary systems, and addresses the question of a “typical” planetary system in the Milky Way. In an era with thousands of exoplanet discoveries in hand and thousands more to follow in short order, a judicious combination of these approaches is emerging.
I’ll showcase some of my own detailed findings of other worlds (placing Earth in context), in addition to wider-field studies of typical planet occurrence and formation.
I’ll close with an opportunity, using an existing data set, to make inroads into the singular question driving much of exoplanetary science: the detectability of signatures of life.
An international team of astronomers has discovered and confirmed a treasure trove of new worlds using NASA’s Kepler spacecraft on its K2 mission. Among the findings tallying 197 initial planet candidates, scientists have confirmed 104 planets outside our solar system. Among the confirmed is a planetary system comprising four promising planets that could be rocky.
The planets, all between 20 and 50 percent larger than Earth by diameter, are orbiting the M dwarf star K2-72, found 181 light years away in the direction of the Aquarius constellation. The host star is less than half the size of the sun and less bright. The planets’ orbital periods range from five and a half to 24 days, and two of them may experience irradiation levels from their star comparable to those on Earth. Despite their tight orbits — closer than Mercury’s orbit around the sun — the possibility that life could arise on a planet around such a star cannot be ruled out, according to lead author Crossfield, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
The researchers achieved this extraordinary “roundup” of exoplanets by combining data with follow-up observations by earth-based telescopes including the North Gemini telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Automated Planet Finder of the University of California Observatories, and the Large Binocular Telescope operated by the University of Arizona. The discoveries are published online in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
Both Kepler and its K2 mission discover new planets by measuring the subtle dip in a star’s brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. In its initial mission, Kepler surveyed just one patch of sky in the northern hemisphere, determining the frequency of planets whose size and temperature might be similar to Earth orbiting stars similar to our sun. In the spacecraft’s extended mission in 2013, it lost its ability to precisely stare at its original target area, but a brilliant fix created a second life for the telescope that is proving scientifically fruitful.
After the fix, Kepler started its K2 mission, which has provided an ecliptic field of view with greater opportunities for Earth-based observatories in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Additionally, the K2 mission is entirely community-driven with all targets proposed by the scientific community.
Because it covers more of the sky, the K2 mission is capable of observing a larger fraction of cooler, smaller, red-dwarf type stars, and because such stars are much more common in the Milky Way than sun-like stars, nearby stars will predominantly be red dwarfs.
“An analogy would be to say that Kepler performed a demographic study, while the K2 mission focuses on the bright and nearby stars with different types of planets,” said Ian Crossfield. “The K2 mission allows us to increase the number of small, red stars by a factor of 20, significantly increasing the number of astronomical ‘movie stars’ that make the best systems for further study.”
To validate candidate planets identified by K2, the researchers obtained high-resolution images of the planet-hosting stars as well as high-resolution optical spectroscopy. By dispersing the starlight as through a prism, the spectrographs allowed the researchers to infer the physical properties of a star — such as mass, radius and temperature — from which the properties of any planets orbiting it can be inferred.
“This bountiful list of validated exoplanets from the K2 mission highlights the fact that the targeted examination of bright stars and nearby stars along the ecliptic is providing many interesting new planets,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for the K2 mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “These targets allow the astronomical community ease of follow-up and characterization, providing a few gems for first study by the James Webb Space Telescope, which could perhaps tell us about the planets’ atmospheres.”
This work was performed in part under contract with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) funded by NASA through the Sagan Fellowship Program executed by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.
NASA Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Astronomers have discovered the youngest fully formed exoplanet ever detected. The discovery was made using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and its extended K2 mission, as well as the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars beyond our sun.
The newfound planet, K2-33b, is a bit larger than Neptune and whips tightly around its star every five days. It is only 5 to 10 million years old, making it one of a very few newborn planets found to date.
“Our Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old,” said Trevor David of Caltech in Pasadena, lead author of a new study published online June 20, 2016, in the journal Nature. “By comparison, the planet K2-33b is very young. You might think of it as an infant.”
David is a graduate student working with astronomer Lynne Hillenbrand, also of Caltech.
Planet formation is a complex and tumultuous process that remains shrouded in mystery. Astronomers have discovered and confirmed roughly 3,000 exoplanets so far; however, nearly all of them are hosted by middle-aged stars, with ages of a billion years or more. For astronomers, attempting to understand the life cycles of planetary systems using existing examples is like trying to learn how people grow from babies to children to teenagers, by only studying adults.
“The newborn planet will help us better understand how planets form, which is important for understanding the processes that led to the formation of Earth,” said co-author Erik Petigura of Caltech.
The first signals of the planet’s existence were measured by K2. The telescope’s camera detected a periodic dimming of the light emitted by the planet’s host star, a sign that an orbiting planet could be regularly passing in front of the star and blocking the light. Data from the Keck Observatory validated that the dimming was indeed caused by a planet, and also helped confirm its youthful age.
Infrared measurements from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope showed that the system’s star is surrounded by a thin disk of planetary debris, indicating that its planet-formation phase is wrapping up. Planets form out of thick disks of gas and dust, called protoplanetary disks, that surround young stars.
“Initially, this material may obscure any forming planets, but after a few million years, the dust starts to dissipate,” said co-author Anne Marie Cody, a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “It is during this time window that we can begin to detect the signatures of youthful planets with K2.”
A surprising feature in the discovery of K2-33b is how close the newborn planet lies to its star. The planet is nearly 10 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun, making it hot. While numerous older exoplanets have been found orbiting very tightly to their stars, astronomers have long struggled to understand how more massive planets like this one wind up in such small orbits. Some theories propose that it takes hundreds of millions of years to bring a planet from a more distant orbit into a close one — and therefore cannot explain K2-33b, which is quite a bit younger.
The science team says there are two main theories that may explain how K2-33b wound up so close to its star. It could have migrated there in a process called disk migration that takes hundreds of thousands of years. Or, the planet could have formed “in situ” — right where it is. The discovery of K2-33b therefore gives theorists a new data point to ponder.
“After the first discoveries of massive exoplanets on close orbits about 20 years ago, it was immediately suggested that they could absolutely not have formed there, but in the past several years, some momentum has grown for in situ formation theories, so the idea is not as wild as it once seemed,” said David.
“The question we are answering is: Did those planets take a long time to get into those hot orbits, or could they have been there from a very early stage? We are saying, at least in this one case, that they can indeed be there at a very early stage,” he said.
Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”
Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates, the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of “planet.” An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques.
“Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. “This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe.”
Kepler captures the discrete signals of distant planets – decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their stars – much like the May 9 Mercury transit of our sun. Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets.
This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously. Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey and lead author of the scientific paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, employed a technique to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage – the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler.
“Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs,” said Morton. “If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you’re going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom.”
In the newly-validated batch of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun’s habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets now are known to be members of this exclusive group.
“They say not to count our chickens before they’re hatched, but that’s exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet),” said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets — a number that’s needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds.”
Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. For four years, Kepler monitored 150,000 stars in a single patch of sky, measuring the tiny, telltale dip in the brightness of a star that can be produced by a transiting planet. In 2018, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will use the same method to monitor 200,000 bright nearby stars and search for planets, focusing on Earth and Super-Earth-sized.
Ames manages the Kepler missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system, with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Astronomers using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory have discovered three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. The new results will be published in the journal Nature on 2 May 2016.
Astronomers using telescopes at ESO’s observatories in Chile have discovered three planets around a dim dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and the Earth, and they are the best targets so far found in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Universe. Credit: ESO. [More video info & options.]
TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star — it is much cooler and redder than the Sun and barely larger than Jupiter. Such stars are both very common in the Milky Way and very long-lived, but this is the first time that planets have been found around one of them. Despite being so close to the Earth, this star is too dim and too red to be seen with the naked eye or even visually with a large amateur telescope. It lies in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier).
Emmanuël Jehin, a co-author of the new study, is excited:
“This really is a paradigm shift with regards to the planet population and the path towards finding life in the Universe. So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets!”
Michaël Gillon, lead author of the paper presenting the discovery, explains the significance of the new findings:
“Why are we trying to detect Earth-like planets around the smallest and coolest stars in the solar neighbourhood? The reason is simple: systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology. So if we want to find life elsewhere in the Universe, this is where we should start to look.“
Astronomers will search for signs of life by studying the effect that the atmosphere of a transiting planet has on the light reaching Earth. For Earth-sized planets orbiting most stars this tiny effect is swamped by the brilliance of the starlight. Only for the case of faint red ultra-cool dwarf stars — like TRAPPIST-1 — is this effect big enough to be detected.
Follow-up observations with larger telescopes, including the HAWK-I instrument on ESO’s 8-metre Very Large Telescope in Chile, have shown that the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 have sizes very similar to that of Earth. Two of the planets have orbital periods of about 1.5 days and 2.4 days respectively, and the third planet has a less well determined period in the range 4.5 to 73 days.
“With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun. The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System,”
explains Michaël Gillon.
This artist’s impression video shows an imagined view from close to one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star.
In this view one of the inner planets is seen in transit across the disc of its tiny and dim parent star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Although they orbit very close to their host dwarf star, the inner two planets only receive four times and twice, respectively, the amount of radiation received by the Earth, because their star is much fainter than the Sun. That puts them closer to the star than the habitable zone for this system, although it is still possible that they possess habitable regions on their surfaces. The third, outer, planet’s orbit is not yet well known, but it probably receives less radiation than the Earth does, but maybe still enough to lie within the habitable zone.
“Thanks to several giant telescopes currently under construction, including ESO’s E-ELT and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope due to launch for 2018, we will soon be able to study the atmospheric composition of these planets and to explore them first for water, then for traces of biological activity. That’s a giant step in the search for life in the Universe,”
concludes Julien de Wit, a co-author from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA.
This work opens up a new direction for exoplanet hunting, as around 15% of the stars near to the Sun are ultra-cool dwarf stars, and it also serves to highlight that the search for exoplanets has now entered the realm of potentially habitable cousins of the Earth. The TRAPPIST survey is a prototype for a more ambitious project called SPECULOOS that will be installed at ESO’s Paranal Observatory .
Notes  TRAPPIST (the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is a Belgian robotic 0.6-metre telescope operated from the University of Liège and based at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. It spends much of its time monitoring the light from around 60 of the nearest ultracool dwarf stars and brown dwarfs (“stars” which are not quite massive enough to initiate sustained nuclear fusion in their cores), looking for evidence of planetary transits.The target in this case, TRAPPIST-1, is an ultracool dwarf, with about 0.05% of the Sun’s luminosity and a mass of about 8% that of the Sun.
 This is one of the main methods that astronomers use to identify the presence of a planet around a star. They look at the light coming from the star, to see if some of the light is blocked as the planet passes in front of its host star on the line of sight to Earth — transits the star, as astronomers say. As the planet orbits around its star, we expect to see regular small dips in the light coming from the star as the planet moves in front of it.
 SPECULOOS is mostly funded by the European Research Council and led also by the University of Liège. Four 1-metre robotic telescopes will be installed at the Paranal Observatory to search for habitable planets around 500 ultra-cool stars over the next five years.