Our Solar System did not prepare us for what we would discover orbiting other stars. Instead, it told us that planets fall into neat categories: Gas giants made mostly of hydrogen and helium (of which Jupiter and Saturn are the archetypes), ice giants made mostly of water (for which Uranus and Neptune are representatives), and solid terrestrial planets with comparatively thin atmospheres — that would be the planets of the inner solar system and the one right under your feet). Since the discovery of thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and the measurement of their masses and densities, it has become clear that not all planets fit into this paradigm. Significantly, unless rocky worlds have an optimistically high abundance, what may be the most abundant type of planet in the Galaxy is a sort of mix between low-density, volatile-rich Neptune-like planets and rocky terrestrial planets. The Solar System features no such planet — after Earth, the next most massive planet is Uranus at ~14.5 times as massive. A casual look at the entirety of discovered transiting planet candidates discovered by Kepler reveals the magnitude of this problem.
While Kepler is no longer observing its original field, the massive amount of data can still be combed through to reveal new planet candidates. Here, previously discovered planet candidates are blue dots, and newly announced planet candidates are yellow. A few things are noteworthy. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of the newly discovered planet candidates have reasonably long orbital periods. This can be expected as shorter period planets have been detectable in the existing data for longer, and have had time to be spotted already. Secondly, and not really the point of this post… they’re still finding warm Jupiters in the data? Wow! What’s up with that? I would have thought those would have been found long ago.
With the obvious caveat that lower regions of that diagram feature harder to detect planets leading to that part being less populated than would be the case if all planets were detected, it would appear that there is a continuous abundance of planets from Earth-sized to Neptune-sized. While radius and mass may only be loosely related, it may also be that there is a continuous abundance of planets from Earth-mass to Neptune-mass, as well. Not having an example of such an intermediate planet in the Solar System, we really don’t know what to expect for what these planets are composed of. As such we began to call them (sometimes interchangeably) super-Earths or Mini-Neptunes. Are they enormous balls of rock with Earth-like composition extending up toward maybe 10 Me? Are they dominated by mass by a rocky core with a thick but comparatively low-mass hydrogen envelope? Do they have some fraction of rock, water and gas? Are they mostly entirely water with a minimal gas envelope? Answering this question would require some constraints on the masses of these planets, as it would allow one to know their density.
The first data point was CoRoT-7 b, the first transiting super-Earth — discovered before Kepler. The host star is very active, leading to a lot of disagreement in the literature about its mass, but further work seems to have settled on a rocky composition for the planet with ~5 Me. Great! Next data point was the transiting super-Earth orbiting GJ 1214, a ~6.5 Me planet with a much lower density, which is too low to be explained by even a pure water composition. This is decidedly not Earth-like. Additional measurements by highly precise spectrometers (namely HARPS and SOPHIE) of Kepler discovered planets have allowed for more data to be filled in, and an interesting trend can be seen.
Interestingly, planets less than ~1.6 Earth-radii seem to have not only solid, but Earth-like compositions. It’s worth noting that only planets where the mass measurement is acquired through Doppler spectroscopy are shown here. Planets like the Kepler-11 family where the masses have been derived by transit timing variations are not shown. If these planets are added, the adherence to the Earth-like composition is much less strict. This may imply that planets which have masses measurable by detectable transit timing variations have had a different formation history and therefore a much lower density. Further data will be very useful in addressing this issue.
On a somewhat unrelated topic, several new habitable planet candidates have been validated by ruling out astrophysical false positives. Among them is Kepler-442 b, which appears to me to be a more promising habitable planet candidate than even Kepler-186 f. Some newly discovered but not yet validated habitable planet candidates have been found as well, including one that appears to be a near Earth-twin.