Meeting the Neighbours

One of six mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope

One of six mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope

The proximity of a planet to our own solar system will be critically important in the near-future when we begin to characterise the atmospheres and assess the potential habitability of extrasolar planets through direct imaging spectroscopy. Additionally, the nearest extrasolar planets will likely be the first targets of interstellar probes launched by humanity to investigate these worlds up close. To this end, there is considerable interest in discovering planetary companions to nearby sun-like stars. I’ve compiled a brief table below to show the nearest sun-like (FGK) stars to us. I’ve omitted the sea of red dwarfs (as well as a couple A-type stars: Sirius and Altair) interspersed between them in the interests of brievity.

Nearest Sun-like (FGK) Star Systems
D (pc) Spectral Type(s)
Sol 0.0 G2V
Alpha Centauri 1.3 G2V + K1V + M5V
Epsilon Eridani 3.2 K2V
Procyon 3.5 F5IV + DQZ
61 Cygni 3.5 K5V + K7V
Epsilon Indi 3.6 K5V + T1V + T6V
Tau Ceti 3.6 G8V
Groombridge 1618 4.9 K7V
40 Eridani 4.9 K1V + DA + M4V

This interest in our sun’s nearest neighbors can hardly be said to be confined to the scientific community. How many of these star names do you recognise, even if simply from works of fiction?

Until this year, there has been evidence for a giant planet around ε Eri (though the existence of this planet has been questioned recently). But over the last couple of months, we have seen extraordinary announcements of planetary companions around both α Cen and τ Cet.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the discovery of a planet around α Cen is an important milestone in our attempts to understand our place in the Universe. The nearest star system to our own has been found to have a planet – only twenty years after it was not known for sure that extrasolar planets existed at all. But for the details (which are likely not news to the reader): The planet orbits the secondary star in the system in a 3 day orbit, exposing the planet to temperatures that completely throw the question of habitability out the window. But we now know that the system was conductive to planet formation billions of years ago, and we have learned that planets often come in groups. There may yet be more planets around α Cen B, and perhaps even planets around α Cen A as well.

But from the perspective of technological progress, the planetary companion reported around \alphaCen B has a minimum mass that is roughly equal to that of Earth. This planet isn’t some super-Earth or a mini-Neptune: It’s almost certainly a terrestrial planet, and it is the lowest-mass planet detected thusfar from Doppler spectroscopy.

With an increasing number of planet candidates in their star’s habitable zones, and an increasing number of planets discovered nearby, we are approaching a time where there will be a known sample of small planets in the habitable zones of the nearest stars. These planets will likely be our best targets for a search for biosignatures in their atmospheres. Large ground-based telescopes with aperture sizes on the order of 25 – 30 metres, such as the Thirty Metre Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope will likely be the key to characterising the atmospheres of these planets.

Thirty Metre Telescope (Concept image)

Thirty Metre Telescope (Concept image)

There are about 125 main sequence stars within 8 pc. Depending on what the abundance and properties of planets in general are in the solar neighbourhood, there may well be a hundred or so small planets that will be available to characterisation by the next generation of ground-based telescopes. You can estimate the underlying distribution of planets (with help from the Kepler mission results) and calculate their angular separation from their stars and their brightness contrast. This can give you an idea of what planets exist in our celestial backyard that are available to us for direct study. Looking in the infrared will make this all easier as the contrast is greater between the two (still extreme, but not as difficult as visible light). A study was recently posted to arXiv about this specifically.

It is notable that the recentlty discovered low-mass planet candidate α Cen Bb presents a contrast of 10-7 and is eminently observable in this baseline scenario (assuming a radius of 1.1 RE) … Despite the worse contrast achieved on this fainter star, the massive planets GJ 876 b and c can be directly characterised if Ag (Rp / RE)2 > ~19 and ~6, respectively (Ag > ~0.02) … The currently known planets GJ 139 c and d can also be characterised of Ag(Rp / RE)2 > ~0.9 and ~1.8 respectively (i.e. Ag > ~0.4), and the planet candidates τ Cet b, c, and d could be characterised for Ag (Rp / RE)2 > ~0.08, ~0.4, and ~1.2 respectively (Ag > ~0.04, ~0.14, and ~0.35). Theoretical efforts to model all these planet’ near-infrared reflectance are clearly warranted.

With nearby planets at α Cen, GJ 876, τ Cet and 82 Eri (GJ 139) being potentially available to direct atmospheric characterisation in the next decade, we are approaching an exciting time where we will have some idea of what these planets are like. This understanding will transcend the basic understanding we have been able to gather from transit light curves and radial velocity.

Still, it will be some time until these planets are known as well as the planets of the Solar System. Our understanding of them will likely be comparable to our current understanding of Pluto. We know there are surface features, we know there are ices of various compositions, but beyond that, Pluto is very much a mystery. Unlike Pluto, a world where in three years time we will have close-up images of thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft, we are not likely to see close-up images of extrasolar planets for the foreseeable future, at least certainly not within our lifetime. Our generation, and likely the next several, will be forced to be content with getting only hints of the nature of the surface conditions on planets outside our solar system. But those hints may be very revealing. They can imply the presence of interesting chemistry and perhaps even biological activity. The limited nature of the understanding of these worlds that we will see unfold in our lifetime is therefore no reason to be pessimistic or to despair. There is much to learn even in the near future, and we should be thankful to be alive in an exciting time where we are beginning to discover the nearest planetary systems to our own and, in the near future, characterise their atmospheres.

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