## Staying Relevant

Mildly out-of-date computer.

It has been nearly 20 years since the discovery of the planet orbiting 51 Pegasi. What followed over the rest of the late 90s were the landmark discoveries of the first eccentric giant planets at 16 Cygni B, and 70 Vir, and the first two-planet system at 47 Ursae Majoris. As new discoveries are made that push the boundary of what is known, prior ones fade into distant memory.

The public interest in these objects also varies with time. It seems odd to think it today, but in the early 1800s, 61 Cygni was wildly more popular than Alpha Centauri. This was merely because at the time, only the former’s distance had been measured, but there does seem to be a correlation between the public interest in an object and its scientific importance. Consider for example three landmark discoveries, the first planet orbiting a sun-like star, the first confirmed brown dwarf, and the first known transiting planet (with stellar hosts 51 Pegasi, Gliese 229 and HD 209458, respectively).

Trends of interest in three landmark discoveries

51 Pegasi becomes wildly famous, and rightfully so being the first of its kind known. Even today most people with a casual interest in astronomy know why 51 Pegasi is important. Gliese 229 has never really reached the prestige of 51 Pegasi — brown dwarfs just aren’t as exciting, and as time went on, interest faded. What started out as just another hot Jupiter became the most important when it was found to transit, and interest in it has continuously increased over the timeframe allowable to me by Google Ngrams.

As time went on, new planets stopped grabbing people’s attention unless they were set apart by some level of spectacularity. From memory alone, what do you know about the planet HD 290327 b? If you’re like me, absolutely nothing. Still, over time new planets and planetary systems were announced that were genuinely interesting. At the turn of the century, the first super-Earths at Gliese 876 and 55 Cancri held our attention for a while, followed by our first transiting Neptune-mass planet at Gliese 436. HD 69830 and HD 40307 gave us our first multi-planet systems made up of sub-Jovians in the mid-to-late 2000s. CoRoT broke ground with the first transiting super-Earth at the end of the decade and a multi-planet system was imaged at HR 8799.

Throughout this evolution of the kinds of things that have kept our attention, it is truly remarkable to pause and realise how numb we seem to have become to some discoveries. The discovery of Earth-sized planets now occurrs so often that it does not even raise an eyebrow anymore. The time between when a type of discovery goes from immensely exciting to just-another-day-at-arXiv seems to be only on the order of a couple years or so. It almost appears that there seems to be a sort of Moore’s Law at hand for extrasolar planet discoveries as there is with computers.

Earlier this month, the Kepler team made public about 700 new planets. Keep in mind we only just recently achieved a total of a thousand known planets. Now we’re knocking on the door of two thousand known planets. These planets are all in multi-planet systems, which is the foundation of the statistical argument used to validate their existence — a single transiting planet candidate can be any number of false positives, but having multiple candidates in a system is much harder to emulate by a non-planetary phenomenon. Many of the planets are Earth-sized and super-Earth sized, with considerable gains in transiting Neptune-sized planets.

New Kepler Planets

To further drive home the point, among the new Kepler planets are four new habitable planet candidates (at Kepler-174, Kepler-296, Kepler-298 and Kepler-309). At least that’s what they’re being called — it is my assertion that their radii are much more consistent with being low-mass, low-density “mini-Neptunes” or “micro-Jovians.” The combined interest in these four new habitable zone planets is less than half the public interest in Kepler-22 b, for example.

Much closer to home, RV studies on M dwarf stars have yielded eight new planets in the solar neighbourhood, and constrained the frequency of planets around M dwarf stars.

According to our results, M dwarfs are hosts to an abundance of low-mass planets and the occurrence rate of planets less massive than 10 M⊕ is of the order of one planet per star, possibly even greater. …

They, too, report new habitable planet candidates, but their minimum masses are, again, consistent more with being more closely reminiscent of Neptune than Earth. Regardless, it is my opinion that this is actually more interesting than the 700 new planets from Kepler. By now, we know that planets are common. The Galaxy is drowning in planets and while new planets are great for population statistics, individual planet discoveries don’t count for anywhere near what they used to. We are moving from an era of having the attention and focus on planet detection and discovery to an era of planet characterisation. We’re hungry for planets that are actually accessible to HST, Spitzer, Keck and soon(-ish) JWST for transmission spectroscopy and eclipse photometry. New planet discoveries in the solar neighbourhood count for far more than Kepler planets because the nearby planets are the ones that we have a shot at studying in-detail from direct imaging in the near future.

They also report the existence of a Neptune-mass planet in a fairly circular, 400-day orbit around Gliese 229, bringing perhaps a little more relevance and attention to a star that saw its moment of fame twenty years ago.

## Meeting the Neighbours

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 $\alpha$Cen 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)

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.