Tag Archives: Kepler-296

Habitable Value

Planets at Kapteyn's Star

Planets at Kapteyn’s Star (source)

Since the last post on this blog, there have been two additional habitable planet candidates announced. First, a two-planet system orbiting the very nearby, very old red dwarf Kapteyn’s Star was reported by Anglada-Escudé et al. The inner planet, the habitable zone world, at 4.8+0.9-1.0 ME is probably a mini-Neptune or micro-Jovian planet, based on its mass — the overwhelming majority of planets of this mass whose radii are known are clearly low-density worlds. The outer world is a cold super-Earth, and probably the same type of planet. Kapteyn’s Star is a member of the Galactic halo, and is quite ancient at ~11 Gyr old. The apparent fact that the Universe was assembling habitable planets when it was less than 3 Gyr old may have interesting implications for the Fermi Paradox, but I won’t go into that here.

Next is Gliese 832 c. In 2008, Bailey et al. reported the presence of a Jupiter-analogue orbiting the nearby red dwarf system GJ 832, and then last week, we learned of second planet, a super-Earth type planet straddling the inner edge of the habitable zone, reported by Wittenmyer, et al. It is almost certain that this planet is not habitable, certainly not to life “as we know it.” The planet’s mass comes in at 5.4±1.0 ME, and therefore likely a mini-Netune / micro-Jovian, much like Kapteyn’s Star b.

Then wandering through the news as I do on a daily basis, I found this

Note the description of the planet as “among the most habitable,” with artist images depicting oceans, lush green land, and so on, despite the description of the planet in the discovery paper as

However, given the large mass of the planet, it seems likely that it would possess a massive atmosphere, which may well render the planet inhospitable. Indeed, it is perhaps more likely that GJ 832c is a “super-Venus,” featuring significant greenhouse forcing.

And this was being generous! I personally thought the discovery of planets at Kapteyn’s Star was much more interesting than the discovery of GJ 832 c, but apparently news cycles have a different standard than I do as to what amounts to an interesting world. That standard, with respect to exoplanet discoveries, is the Earth Similarity Index (ESI) that the Planetary Habitability Laboratory uses to evaluate a planet’s habitability. A quick look at their site shows that, sure enough, GJ 832 c is the third most highly ranked exoplanet.


This is not the first time I have complained about the PHL. But this time I will instead work on providing an alternative method of evaluating a planet’s habitability. A child could look at the above diagram and tell you Kepler-186f was the most “Earth-like” of those planets based on their appearance, but to be rigorous and useful, we need a system to quantify a planet’s habitability. Let’s first look at how the ESI is determined.

\displaystyle ESI=\prod_{i=1}^n\left(1-\left|\frac{x_i-x_{i_0}}{x_i+x_{i_0}}\right|\right)^\frac{w_i}{n}

Where x_i is the n-th property of the planet — in this case, either radius, density, escape velocity or surface temperature — x_{i_0} is the value of this property for Earth, and w_i is the weight exponent of a property. For the parameters usually used by the ESI, these values are

Property Reference Weight Exponent
Radius 1 R_\oplus 0.57
Density 1 \rho_\oplus 1.07
Escape Velocity 1 V_{e_\oplus} 0.70
Surface Temperature 288 K 5.58

The formula I will use to evaluate the habitability of an exoplanet will be rather anthropocentric – for all I know, solid, hot super-Earth-type planets like Kepler-10 b may be the most frequently inhabited planets in the Galaxy, but all I know of is Earth-life, and so this formula will be centered around finding Earth-like life. It will effectively be based on Guassian distributions, and will take the form

\displaystyle H = \prod_{i=1}^4 \frac{1}{\sigma\sqrt{2\pi}}\exp\left(-\frac{(x_i-\mu)^2}{2\sigma^2}\right)

Here, μ acts as a reference value much as in the ESI formula, σ describes the broadening of the distribution and will effectively be used to determine the tolerance of variation on a particular parameter, and x_i is the parameter we look at. As the product sign suggests, we calculate this for each of four parameters and multiply the results. Here, the four parameters are the stellar temperature, planet mass, planet radius, and planetary insolation.

For the stellar temperature, I chose σ=0.001 and μ=5500, which is some 277 K cooler than our sun. It seems that early K dwarfs are probably a sort of “sweet spot” for planet habitability. As such, if you found an Earth-analogue around an early K dwarf, it would rank higher on this scale than Earth itself. For the planetary mass and radii, I chose μ=1.0 for obvious reasons, and chose σ=5 and σ=0.75, respectively — punishing radius pretty heavily. Lastly, I chose insolation values of μ=1 and σ=1. All values of σ are in terms of that of Earth. Lastly, the values were normalised to make 1 the highest achievable value.

Unsurprisingly, the Solar System is the clear winner, followed by Kepler-186 f, which I made a big deal about earlier this year. The GJ 581 system, which was celebrated as hosting the first habitable planet candidates in the latter years of the last decade, doesn’t even make it up to 10-5, nor does GJ 832 c.

Planet H
Earth 0.96635
Venus 0.61220
Kepler-186 f 0.18525
Kepler-62 f 0.09104
Mars 0.04304
Kepler-62 e 0.00530
Kepler-283 c 0.00005
Kepler-296 Af 0.00003

I would say this set-up makes a lot more sense than the one the PHL is using. Anything below 0.1 is probably not worth a raised eyebrow these days.

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.