Tag Archives: HR 8799

Staying Relevant

Mildly out-of-date computer.

Mildly out-of-date computer.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

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

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.

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Great Mysteries Revealed

Giant squid finally caught on video

Giant squid finally caught on video

It was recently announced that Japanese scientists have managed to finally capture video footage of a giant squid. We’ve known for some time that they exist, but until now, they have never been seen like this in their native environment.

Previously discussed detection methods for extrasolar planets leave much to be desired. Doppler spectroscopy tells you only a minimum mass for the planet and its orbital period. Transit photometry tells you the size and orbital period of the planet, and is typically not capable of confirming the detected object as a planet (since the mass is unknown, a brown dwarf or low-mass star could masquerade as a planet). Gravitational microlensing tells you the planet’s mass but only a projected distance from the star, and usually nothing about the orbit. Astrometry tells you the planet’s true mass and orbit in three dimensions, but otherwise permits you no more information about the planet than Doppler spectroscopy. Combining these techniques will allow one to tease out more information, but it’s still awfully indirect. We know the planets are out there, but it would be nice to actually see them.

The ultimate detection method of the future that will provide the most information is direct imaging. It’s very straightforward, all it involves is a large telescope with a decent imaging contrast ratio. It sounds easy but there are daunting challenges involved due to the proximity of planets to their stars and the brightness of their host stars.

The first directly imaged exoplanet

The first directly imaged exoplanet

As of the time of this writing, only a couple dozen or so planets have been imaged with 8 – 10 metre class telescopes as well as HST. For the most part, they were all imaged in the infrared, they are all very massive as far as planets go, and they are all widely separated from their stars – typically hundreds of AU.

The greatest problem is that stars are very bright, and planets are comparatively very dim. In visible light, there’s a brightness contrast between the Sun and Jupiter of a factor of a billion, but depending on the wavelength and system age and planet mass, the brightness contrast can be as low as ten thousand. This problem is made worse by the diffraction of the starlight across the focal plane of the telescope produces a large amount of “noise,” with the star’s light spread out over a greater area of the image. A method of removing this excess light from a star is a requirement for directly imaging its planets.

One method of doing so is to use a coronograph. This is effectively an object in the telescope to block the light from the star, allowing one to see “around” the star. While you might therefore expect there to be dark “hole” in the image where the star is, the diffraction of light around the coronograph still produces a brighter, noisy area where the star would be. Imperfections in the coronograph will result in extra noise, and it is not clear that perfect coronographs are achievable. Since coronographs (even perfect ones) only attenuate the coherent part of the light’s wavefront (the shape of the waves of light). Imperfections in the wavefront (called aberrations) can leak through the coronograph to produce a residual noise in the form of a speckled halo around the star. Methods exist to correct this, such as wavefront correction with deformable mirrors or to calibrate images for speckles. It’s not perfect, but it certainly removes a lot of the excess starlight.

Four planets at HR 8799

Four planets at HR 8799

Some caution is necessary when discovering planets through direct imaging. A supposed planet next to a star could turn out to be a background star. Monitoring of the planet candidate over some time will be needed to determine if it is bound to the star. Since stars and their associated planets move through space together, there is a certain motion in the sky that the planet and the star will follow if they are bound, whereas the two will have vastly divergent motions in the sky if they are not.

The advantages of directly imaging extrasolar planets is beyond having pictures – it permits direct spectroscopy of the planet’s light. Now while it is possible to gather information about the atmosphere of a transiting planet at a great distance from the star, the fraction of planets at large distances from their star that will transit are quite low. Direct imaging opens up access to all planets with a sufficient brightness and angular separation from the star.

I suspect in the future that this will be the most prevalent way of truly characterizing the planets in the solar neighborhood. Statistically speaking, few nearby Earths will transit, so we will require direct imaging to test their atmospheres for the presence of bio-markers that may be indicative of life.

2011 Review

Arguably the most important discovery of 2011: Earth-sized exoplanets

2011 was a banner year for extrasolar planet science with the Kepler results really beginning to come in. Among the more interesting:

    Kepler results:

  • Kepler-10: Kepler’s first rocky super-Earth, with a transiting Neptune further out.
  • Kepler-11: A system of six transiting super-Earths with anomalously low density.
  • Kepler-14: A massive hot Jupiter in a binary system.
  • Kepler-16: The first transiting circumbinary planet around an eclipsing binary star.
  • Kepler-18: A system of three planets: A super-Earth and two inflated Neptunes in a 2:1 resonance. Very similar to Kepler-9 but scaled down in masses.
  • Kepler-19: A transiting sub-Jovian planet and the first case of the discovery of a second planet through transit timing variations in the transiting planet.
  • Kepler-20: A system of five planets, two of which are ~Earth-sized.
  • Kepler-21: A transiting super-Earth around a bright (V = 8.27) star.
  • Kepler-22: A transiting “mini-Neptune” in the habitable zone, and the first transiting planet in the habitable zone of any star.
  • KOI-423: First transiting planet around a subgiant star.
  • KOI-730: A remarkable system of four planets in a 1:2:4:8 resonance.
  • KOI-55: What appears to be two remnant cores of gas giants engulfed by their parent star during its red giant phase.
    HARPS results:

  • 82 Eri: Three low mass planets only a few times the mass of Earth.
  • HD 136352: Three super-Earth/sub-Jovian planets.
  • HD 39194: Three super-Earths.
  • HD 134606: Three Neptunes.
  • HD 215152: Two lower-mass super-Earths.
  • Gliese 667 C: A second planet of a few Earth-masses in the habitable zone.
  • HD 85512: A super-Earth on the inner edge of the habitable zone.

On the orbital dynamics front, in January, it was found that the HD 37124 system, which hosts three intermediate period gas giant planets of roughly equal mass, may have a 2:1 resonance for the orbit of two of its planets. Furthermore, the planet candidate orbiting Rho Coronae Borealis, one of the first planet candidates, was proven to have a true mass far outside the planetary regime. The recovery of the planets of HR 8799 in old HST data has permitted the architecture of the system to be much more constrained.

A planet around a naked-eye giant star Alpha Arietis was reported in April. Later, in August, it was revealed that a new planetary mass object has been found orbiting a pulsar. On the subject of post-main sequence stars, a candidate planet was imaged orbiting a white dwarf. On the other side of the main sequence, a planet had been found in the late stages of formation at LkCa 15.

Gravitational microlensing provided us some constraints on the abundance of rogue giant planets as well as another cold super-Earth. It turns out that rogue giant planets may be twice as frequent as main sequence stars.

Several planets around eclipsing binaries were found this year, including planets at UZ For, HU Aqr, Kepler-16, and NY Vir.

Without a doubt, one of the most exciting stories of 2011 is the discovery that one of the first known super-Earths, the innermost planet at 55 Cancri, transits its star. This is the brightest star known to have a transiting planet, and it will prove very useful for the study of these kinds of planets. While it was initially thought that the planet was rocky and iron-rich, later observations suggest that the planet must have a significant envelope of volatiles.

In summary, 2011 has been an astounding year. The focus has shifted away from gas giant planets to sub-Jovian planets — Neptunes, mini-Neptunes and super-Earths. Below is a graph that shows this year’s total planet catch compared to previous years. One thing is clear: Not only is the galaxy full of planets, but we can look forward to seeing a huge number more in the near future.

Now for some fun, some predictions for what we might have by the end of 2012:

  • 1,000 Planets on the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
  • The discovery of a ring system around a transiting planet
  • More low-mass planets in the habitable zone from both radial velocity and transit
  • Confirmation of obvious extrasolar planet atmospheric variability (cloud rotations, etc).