Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet: How Gaia is Helping Nail Down Planet Sizes


Gaia’s all-sky view of our Milky Way and neighboring galaxies. (ESA/Gaia/DPAC)



(This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).  Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics.  Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.)


Last month, the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission released the most accurate catalogue to date of positions and motions for a staggering 1.3 billion stars.

Let’s do a few comparisons so we can be suitably amazed. The total number of stars you can see without a telescope is less than 10,000. This includes visible stars in both the northern and southern hemispheres, so looking up on a very dark night will allow you to count only about half this number.

The data just released from Gaia is accurate to 0.04 milli-arcseconds. This is a measurement of the angle on the sky, and corresponds to the width of a human hair at a distance of over 300 miles (500 km.) These results are from 22 months of observations and Gaia will ultimately whittle down the stellar positions to within 0.025 milli-arcseconds, the width of a human hair at nearly 680 miles (1000 km.)

OK, so we are now impressed. But why is knowing the precise location of stars exciting to planet hunters?

The reason is that when we claim to measure the radius or mass of a planet, we are almost always measuring the relative size compared to the star. This is true for all planets discovered via the radial velocity and transit techniques — the most common exoplanet detection methods that account for over 95% of planet discoveries.

It means that if we underestimate the star size, our true planet size may balloon from being a close match to the Earth to a giant the size of Jupiter. If this is true for many observed planets, then all our formation and evolution theories will be a mess.

The size of a star is estimated from its brightness. Brightness depends on distance, as a small, close star can appear as bright as a distant giant. Errors in the precise location of stars therefore make a big mess of exoplanet data.

An artist’s impression of the Gaia spacecraft — which is on a mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Milky Way. In the process it will expand our understanding of the composition, formation and evolution of the galaxy. (ESA/D. Ducros)

This issue has been playing on the minds of exoplanet hunters.

In 2014, a journal paper authored by Fabienne Bastien from Vanderbilt University suggested that nearly half of the brightest stars observed by the Kepler Space Telescope are not regular stars like our sun, but actually are distant and much larger sub-giant stars. Such an error would mean planets around these stars are 20 – 30% larger than estimated, a particularly hard punch for the exoplanet community as planets around bright stars are prime targets for follow-up studies.

Previous improvements in the accuracy of the measured radii and other properties of stars have already proved their worth. In 2017, a journal paper led by Benjamin Fulton at the University of Hawaii revealed the presence of a gap in the distribution of sizes of super Earths orbiting close to their star. Planets 20% and 140% larger than the Earth appeared to be common, but there was a notable dearth of planets around twice the size of our own.

Super Earth planets with orbits of less than 100 days seem to come in two different sizes. (NASA/Ames/Caltech/University of Hawaii. (B.J.Fulton))

The most popular theory for this gap is that the peaks belong to planets with similar core sizes, but the planets with larger radii have deep atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. This would make the planets belonging to the smaller radii peak true rocky worlds, whereas the second peak would be mini Neptunes: the first evidence of a size distinction between these two regimes.

This split in the small planet population was spotted due to improved measurements of planet radii based on higher precision stellar observations made using the Keck Observatory. With a gap size of only half an Earth-radius, it had previously gone unnoticed due to the uncertainty in planet size measurements.

Both the concern of a significant error in planet sizes and the tantalizing glimpse at the insights that could be achieved with more accurate data is why Gaia is so exciting.

Launched on December 19, 2013, Gaia is a European Space Agency (ESA) space telescope for astrometry; the measurement of the position and motion of stars. The mission has the modest goal of creating a three-dimensional map of our galaxy to unprecedented precision.

Gaia measures the position of stars using a technique known as parallax, which involves looking at an object from different perspectives.

Parallax is easily demonstrated by holding up your finger and looking at it with one eye open and the other closed. Switch eyes, and you will see your finger moves in relation to the background. This movement is because you have viewed your finger from two different locations: the position of your left eye and that of your right.

Parallax is the apparent shift in the position of stars as the Earth orbits the sun. It can be used to determine distances between stars. (ESA/ATG medialab)

The degree of motion depends on the separation between your eyes and the distance to your finger: if you move your finger further from your eyes, its parallax motion will be less. By measuring the separation of your viewing locations and the amount of movement you see, the distance to an object can therefore be calculated.

Since stars are far more distant than a raised finger, we need widely separated viewing locations to detect the parallax. This can be done by observing the sky when the Earth is on opposite sides of its orbit. By measuring how far stars seem to move over a six month interval, we can calculate their distance and precisely estimate their size.

This measurement was first achieved by Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1838, who calculated the distance to the star 61 Cygni. Bessel estimated the star was 10.3 light years from the Earth, just 10% lower than modern measurements which place the star at a distance of 11.4 light years.

However, measuring parallax from Earth can be challenging even with powerful telescopes. The first issue is that our atmosphere distorts light, making it difficult to measure tiny shifts in the position of more distant stars. The second problem is that the measured motion is always relative to other background stars. These more distant stars will also have a parallax motion, albeit smaller than stars closer to Earth.

As a result, the motion measured and hence the distance to a star, will depend on the parallax of the more distant stars in the same field of view. This background parallax varies over the sky, leaving no way on Earth of creating a consistent catalogue of stellar positions.

The Gaia spacecraft’s billion-pixel camera maps stars and other objects in the Milky Way. (C. Carreau/ESA)

These two conundrums are where Gaia has the advantage. Orbiting in space, Gaia simply avoids atmospheric distortion. The second issue of the background stars is tackled by a clever instrument design.

Gaia has two telescopes that point 106.4 degrees apart but project their images onto the same detector. This allows Gaia to see stars from different parts of the sky simultaneously. The telescopes slowly rotate so that each field of view is seen once by each telescope and overlaid with a field 106.4 degrees either clockwise or counter-clockwise to its position. The parallax motion of stars during Gaia’s orbit can therefore be compared both with stars in the same field of view, and with stars in two different directions.

Gaia repeats this across the sky, linking the fields of view together to globally compare stellar positions. This removes the problem of a parallax measurement depending on the motion of stars that just happen to be in the background.

The result is the relative position of all stars with respect to one another, but a reference point is needed to turn this into true distances. For this, Gaia compares the parallax motion to distant quasars.

Quasars are black holes that populate the center of galaxies and are surrounded by immensely luminous discs of gas. Being outside our Milky Way, the distance to quasars is so great that their parallax during the Earth’s orbit is negligibly small. Quasars are too rare to be within the field of view of most stars, but with stellar positions calibrated across the whole sky, Gaia can use any visible quasars to give the absolute distances to the stars.

What did these precisely measured stellar motions do to the properties of the orbiting planets? Did our small worlds vanish or the intriguing division in the sizes of super Earths disappear?

This was bravely investigated in a journal paper this month led by Travis Berger from the University of Hawaii. By matching the stars observed by Kepler to those in the Gaia catalogue, Berger confirmed that the majority of bright stars were indeed sun-like and not the suspected sub-giant population. However, the more precise stellar sizes were slightly larger on average, causing a small shift in the observed small planet radii towards bigger planets.

Planet radii derived from the new Gaia data and the Kepler (DR25) Stellar Properties Catalogue. Red points are confirmed planets while black points are planet candidates. Bottom panel shows the ratio between the two data sets. There is a small shift towards larger planets in the new Gaia data. (Figure 6 in Berger et al, 2018.)

The same result was found in a parallel study led by Fulton, who found a 0.4% increase in planet radii from Gaia compared with the (higher precision than Kepler, but less precision than Gaia) results using Keck.

The papers authored by Berger and Fulton investigated the split in super Earth sizes on short orbits, confirming that the two planet populations was still evident with the high precision Gaia data. Further exploration also revealed interesting new trends.

Fulton noticed that two peaks in the super Earth population appear at slightly larger radii for planets orbiting more massive stars. This is true irrespective of the level radiation the planets are receiving from the star, ruling out the possibility that more massive stars are simply better at evaporating away atmospheres on bigger planets. Instead, this trend implies that bigger stars build bigger planets.

Models proposed by Sheng Jin (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Christoph Mordasini (the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) in a paper last year proposed that the location of the split in the super Earth population could be linked to composition.

Planets made of lighter materials such as ices would need a larger size to retain their atmospheres, compared to planet cores of denser rock. If the planet size at the population split marks the transition from large rocky worlds without thick atmospheres to mini-Neptunes enveloped in gas, then it corresponds to the size needed to retain that gas.

Berger suggests that the gap between the planet populations seen in the new Gaia data is best explained by planets with an icy-rich composition. As these planets all have short orbits, this suggests these close-in worlds migrated inwards from a much colder region of the planetary system.

The high precision planet radii measurements from Gaia seem to leave our planet population intact, but suggest new trends worth exploring. This will be a great job for TESS, NASA’s recently launched planet hunter that is preparing to begin its first science run this summer. Gaia’s astrometry catalogue of stars will be ensuring we get the very best from this data.

Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

First Mapping of Interstellar Clouds in Three Dimensions; a Key Breakthrough for Better Understanding Star Formation

This snakelike gas cloud (center dark area) in the constellation Musca resembles a skinny filament. But it’s actually a flat sheet that extends about 20 light-years into space away from Earth, an analysis finds.
(Dylan O’Donnell,

When thinking and talking about “astrobiology,” many people are inclined to think of alien creatures that often look rather like us, but with some kind of switcheroo.  Life, in this view, means something rather like us that just happens to live on another planet and perhaps uses different techniques to stay alive.

But as defined by NASA, and what “astrobiology” is in real scientific terms, is the search for life beyond Earth and the exploration of how life began here.  They may seem like very different subjects but are actually joined at the hip;  having a deeper understanding of how life originated on Earth is surely one of the most important set of clues to how to find it elsewhere.

Those con-joined scientific disciplines — the search for extraterrestrial life and the extraordinarily difficult task of analyzing how it started here — together raise another most complex challenge.

Precisely how far back do we look when trying to understand the origins of life?  Do we look to Darwin’s “warm little pond?” To the Miller-Urey experiment’s conclusion that organic building blocks of life can be formed by sparking some common gases and water with electricity?  To an understanding the nature and evolution of our atmosphere?

The answer is “yes” to all, as well as to scores of additional essential dynamics of our galaxies.  Because to begin to answer those three questions, we also have to know how planets form, the chemical make-up of the cosmos, how different suns effect different exoplanets and so much more.

This is why I was so interested in reading about a breakthrough approach to understanding the shape and nature of interstellar clouds.  Because it is when those clouds of gas and dust collapse under their own gravitational attraction that stars are formed — and, of course, none of the above questions have meaning without preexisting stars.

In theory, the scope of astrobiology could go back further than star-formation, but I take my lead from Mary Voytek, chief scientist for astrobiology at NASA.  The logic of star formation is part of astrobiology, she says, but the innumerable cosmological developments going back to the Big Bang are not.

So by understanding something new about interstellar clouds — in this case determining the 3D structure of such a “cloud” — we are learning about some of the very earliest questions of astrobiology, the process that led over the eons to us and most likely life of some sort on the billions of exoplanets we now know are out there.

Cepheus B, a molecular cloud located in our Milky Galaxy about 2,400 light years from the Earth, provides an excellent model to determine how stars are formed. This composite image of Cepheus B combines data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope.The Chandra observations allowed the astronomers to pick out young stars within and near Cepheus B, identified by their strong X-ray emission.
Credits X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/K. Getman et al.; IRL NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J. Wang et al.

So, what is an interstellar cloud?

It’s the generic name given to an accumulation of gas, plasma, and dust in our and other galaxies, left over from galaxy formation.  So an interstellar cloud is a denser-than-average region of the interstellar medium.

Hydrogen is its primary component, and that hydrogen exists in a wide variety of states depending on the density, the age, the location and more of the cloud.

Until recently the rates of reactions in interstellar clouds were expected to be very slow, with minimal products being produced due to the low temperature and density of the clouds. However, organic molecules were observed in the spectra that scientists would not have expected to find under these conditions, such as formaldehyde, methanol, and vinyl alcohol.

The reactions needed to create such substances are familiar to scientists only at the much higher temperatures and pressures of earth and earth-based laboratories. The fact that they were found indicates that these chemical reactions in interstellar clouds take place faster than suspected, likely in gas-phase reactions unfamiliar to organic chemistry as observed on earth.

What was newly revealed this week is that it is possible to determine the 3D structure of an interstellar cloud. The advance not only reveals the true structure of the molecular cloud Musca, which differs from previous assumptions in looking more like a pancake than a needle.

But the two authors, astrophysicist Konstantinos Tassis of the University of Crete and Aris Tritsis, now a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University, say their discovery will lead to a better understanding of the evolution of interstellar clouds in general. This, in turn, which will help astronomers answer the longstanding questions of how and why the enormous number and wild variety of stars exists in our galaxy and beyond.

Here is a video put together to help explain the science of Musca and its dimensions.   The work was published in the journal Science, and here is their description of what the video shows:

“The first part of the movie gives an overview of the problem of viewing star-forming clouds in 2D projection. The second part of the video shows the striations in Musca, and the process through which the normal mode spatial frequencies are recovered. The third part of the movie demonstrates how the apparently complex profiles of the intensity cuts through striations are reproduced by progressively summing the theoretically predicted normal modes. At this part of the video (1:30-1:52) the spatial frequencies are scaled to the frequency range of human hearing and are represented by the musical crescendo.”

Credit: Aris Tritsis, Nick Gikopoulos, Valerio Calisse, Kostas Tassis

In an email, Tritsis said that this is the first time that the 3-dimensional coordinates of an interstellar cloud have been measured.

“There have been other crude estimates of the 3D sizes of clouds that relied on many assumptions so this is the first time we were able to determine the size with such accuracy and certainty,” he wrote.

“What we are after is the physics that controls the nature of the stars that will form. This physics will dictate how many star will form and with what masses, but it will also be responsible for shaping the cloud. Thus, this physics is encoded in the shape and that is why we are so interested about it.”

Their pathway in to mapping a 3D cloud was the striations (wispy stripe-like patterns) they detected within the cloud. They show that these striations form by the excitation of fast magnetosonic waves (longitudinal magnetic pressure waves) – the cloud is vibrating, like a bell ringing after it has been struck.

“What we have actually found is that the entire cloud oscillates just like waves on the surface of a pond,” he wrote in his email.

Aris Tritsis, a postdoctoral student at the Australian National University.

“However, in this instance is not the surface of the water that is oscillating but the magnetic field that is threading the cloud. Furthermore, because these waves get trapped, they act like a fingerprint. They are unique and by studying their frequencies we can deduce the sizes of the boundaries that confined them.

“It is the same concept as a violin and a cello making very different sounds. In a similar fashion, clouds with different shapes and sizes will vibrate differently. After having identify the frequencies of these oscillations we scaled them to the frequency range of human hearing to get the ‘song of Musca’!”

By analyzing the frequencies of these waves the authors produce a model of the cloud, showing that Musca is not a long, thin filament as once thought, but rather a vast sheet-like or pancake structure that stretches 20 light-years away from Earth.  (The cloud is some 27 light 490 and 650 light-years from Earth.)

With the determination of its 3D nature, the scientists modeled a cloud that is ten times more spacious than earlier thought.

Konstantinos Tassis of the University of Crete is a star formation specialist. He received his doctorate in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

From the 3D reconstruction, the authors were able to determine the cloud’s density. Tritsis and Tassis note that, with its geometry now determined, Musca can be used to test theoretical models of interstellar clouds.

“Because of the fact that Musca is isolated and it is very ordered, it was the obvious choice for us to test our method,” Tritis wrote. “However, other clouds out there could also vibrate globally.

“Knowing the exact dimensions of Musca, we can simulate it in great detail, calculate many different properties of this particular cloud based on different star formation models, and compare them with observations.

“We believe that, with its 3D structure revealed, Musca will now act as a prototype laboratory to study star formation in greater detail than ever before. The Musca star formation saga is only now beginning, and this is a very exciting development that goes beyond this particular discovery.”

And in that way, the discovery is very much a part of the long and broad sweep of astrobiology.


Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

Exoplanet Fomalhaut b On the Move

Enlarge and enjoy.  Fomalhaut b on its very long (1,700 year) and elliptica orbit, as seen here in five images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over seven years.  The reference to “20 au” means that the bar shows a distance of 20 astronomical units, or 20 times the distance from the sun to the Earth. (Jason Wang/Paul Kalas; UC Berkeley)

Direct imaging of exoplanets remains in its infancy, but goodness what a treat it is already and what a promise of things to come.

Almost all of the 3,714 exoplanets confirmed so far were detected via the powerful but indirect transit and radial velocity methods — measures of slightly decreased light as a planet crosses in front of its star, or the measured wobble of a star caused by the gravitational pull of a planet.

But now 44 planets have also been detected by telescopes — in space and on the ground — looking directly at distant stars.  Using increasingly sophisticated coronagraphs to block out the blinding light of the stars, these tiny and often difficult-to-identify specks are nonetheless results that are precious to scientists and the public.

To me, they make exoplanet science accessible as perhaps nothing else so far.  Additionally, they strike me as moving — and I don’t mean in orbit.  Rather, as when you see your own insides via x-rays or MRIs, direct imaging of exoplanets provides a glimpse into the otherwise hidden realities of our world.

And in the years ahead – actually, most likely the decades ahead — this kind of direct imaging of our astronomical neighborhood will become increasingly powerful and common.

This is how the astronomers studying the Fomalhaut system describe what you are seeing:

“The Fomalhaut system harbors a large ring of rocky debris that is analogous to our Kuiper belt. Inside this ring, the planet Fomalhaut b is on a trajectory that will send it far beyond the ring in a highly elliptical orbit.

“The nature of the planet remains mysterious, with the leading theory being the planet is surrounded by its own ring or a sphere of dust.”


A simulation of one possible orbit for Fomalhaut b derived from the analysis of Hubble Space Telescope data between 2004 and 2012, presented in January 2013 by astronomers Paul Kalas and James Graham of Berkeley, Michael Fitzgerald of UCLA and Mark Clampin of NASA/Goddard. (Paul Kalas)

Fomalhaut b was first described in 2008 by Paul Kalas, James Graham and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley.   If not the first object identified through direct imaging — a brown dwarf failed star preceded it, as well as other objects that remain planet candidates — Fomalhaut was among the very first.  The data came via the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope.

But Fomalhaut b is an unusual planet by any standard, and that resulted in a lot of early debate about whether it really was a planet.  Early efforts to confirm the presence of the planet failed, in part because the efforts were made in the infrared portion of the spectrum.

Instead, Fomalhaut b had been detected only in the optical portion of the spectrum, which is uncommon for a directly imaged planet. More specifically, it reflects bluish light, which again is unusual for a planet.  Some contended that the planet detection made by Hubble was actually a noise artifact.

A pretty serious debate ensued in 2011 but by 2013 the original Hubble data had been confirmed by two teams and its identity as a planet was broadly embraced, although the noise of the earlier debate to some extent remains.

As Kalas told me, this is probably because “no one likes to cover the end of a debate.”  Nonetheless, he said, it is over.

“Fomalhaut b at age 440 Myr (.44 billion years) is much older than the other directly imaged planets,” Kalas explained. “The younger the planet, the greater the infrared light it emits. Thus it is not particularly unusual that it is hard to image planets in the Fomalhaut system using infrared techniques.”

Kalas believes that a ring system around the planet could be reflecting the light.  Another possibility, he said, is that two dwarf planets collided and a compact dust cloud surrounding a dwarf planet is moving through the Fomalhaut system.

That scenario would be very difficult to test, he said, but the alternate possibility of a Saturnian exoplanet with a ring is something that the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to explore.

In any case, the issue of whether or not the possibly first directly-imaged planet is in fact a planet has been resolved for now.

When the International Astronomical Union held a global contest to name some of the better known exoplanets several years ago, one selected for naming was Fomalhaut b, which also now has the name “Dagon.”  The star Fomalhaut is the brightest in the constellation Pisces Australis — the Southern Fish — and Dagon was a fish god of the ancient Philistines.


This video of Beta Pictoris and its exoplanet was made using nine images taken with the Gemini Planet Imager over more than two years years.  The planet is expected to come our from behind its star later this year, and the GPI team hopes to capture that event. (Jason Wang; UC Berkeley, Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey)

While instruments on the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the European Very Large Telescope in Chile and the Hubble Space Telescope have succeeded in directly imaging some planets, the attention has been most focused on the two relatively newcomers.  They are the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), now on the Gemini South Telescope in Chile and funded largely by American organizations and universities, and the largely European Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument, also in Chile.

In real time, the two instruments correct for distorting atmospheric turbulences around Earth and also block the intense light of the host stars. Any residual incoming light is then scrutinized, and the brightest spots suggest a possible planet and can be photographed as such.

The ultimate goal is have similar instruments improved until they are powerful enough to read the atmospheres of the planets through spectroscopy, which has been done so far only to a limited extent.

Kalas, Graham and Jason Wang (a graduate student at Berkeley who put together the direct imaging movies ) are part of the GPI team, which since 2014 has been searching for Jupiter-sized and above planets orbiting some distance from their suns.  The group is a member of NASA’s NExSS initiative to encourage exoplanet scientists from many disciplines to work together.

While GPI has had successes detecting important exoplanets such as 51 Eridani b, it also studies already identified planets to increase understanding of their orbits and their characteristics.

The Gemini Planet Imager when it was being connected to the Gemini South Telescope in Chile. (Gemini Observatory)

GPI has been especially active in studying the planet Beta Pictoris b, a super Jupiter discovered using data collected by the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope.  While the data was first collected in 2003, it took five years to tease out the planet orbiting the young star and it took several more years to confirm the discovery and begin characterizing the planet.

GPI has followed Beta Pictoris b for several years now, compiling orbital and other data used for video above.

The planet is currently behind its sun and so cannot be observed.  But James Graham told me that the planet is expected to emerge late this year or early next year.  It remains unclear, Graham said, whether GPI will be able to capture that emergence because it will soon be moved from the Gemini telescope in Chile to the Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii.  But he certainly hopes that it will be allowed to operate until the planet reappears.

The planet 51 Eridani b was the first exoplanet discovered by the GPI and remains one of its most important.   The planet is a million times fainter than its parent star and shows the strongest methane signature ever detected on an alien planet, which should yield additional clues as to how the planet formed.

The four-year GPI campaign from Chile has not discovered as many Jupiter-and-greater sized planets as earlier expected.  Graham said that may well be because there are fewer of them than astronomers predicted, or it may be because direct imaging is difficult to do.

But Graham said the campaign is actually nowhere near over.  Much of the data collected since 2014 remains to be studied and teased apart, and other Jupiters and super Jupiters likely are hidden in the data.

Right now the exoplanet science community, and especially those active in direct imaging, are anxiously awaiting a decision by NASA, and then Congress, about the fate of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST.)

Designed to be the first space telescope to carry a coronagraph and consequently a major step forward for direct imaging, it was scheduled to be NASA’s big new observatory of the 2020s.

But the Trump Administration cancelled the mission earlier this year, Congress then restored it but with the caveat that NASA had to provide a detailed plan for its science, its technology and its cost.  That plan remains an eagerly-awaited work in progress.

Meanwhile, here is another example of what direct imaging, with the help of soon-to-be Caltech postdoc Jason Wang, can provide.  The video of the HR 8799 system went viral when first made public in early last year.


The four planet system orbiting the planet HR 8977, first partially identified in 2008 by Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics and Bruce Macintosh of Stanford and others.   The video was created in 2017 after all four planets had been identified via direct imagine and their orbits had been followed for some years. (Jason Wang of UC Berkeley/Christian Marois of NRC Herzberg.)

The promise of direct imaging is enormous.  The collected photons can be used for spectroscopy that can potentially tell scientists about a planet’s radius, mass, age, effective temperature, clouds, molecular composition, rotation rate and atmospheric dynamics.

For a small, potentially habitable planet, direct imaging can measure surface temperate and pressure and determine whether it can support liquid water.  It can also potentially determine if the atmosphere is in the kind of disequilibrium regarding oxygen, ozone and perhaps methane that signal the presence of life.

But almost all this is in the future since none of the current instruments are powerful enough to collect that data.

In the meantime, researchers such as Berkeley graduate student Lea Hirsch, soon to be a Stanford postdoc,  are focused on using the strengths of the different detection methods to come up with constraints on exoplanetary characteristics (such as mass and radius) that one technique alone could not provide.

University of California at Berkeley astronomy grad student Lea Hirsch at Lick Observatory. She will be going soon to Stanford University for a postdoc with Gemini Planet Imager Principal Investigator Bruce Macintosh.

For instance, the transit technique works best for identifying planets close to their stars, direct imaging is the opposite and radial velocity is best that detecting large and relatively close-in planets.  Radial velocity gives a minimum (but not maximum) mass, while transits provide an exoplanet radius.

What Hirsch would like to do is determine constraints (limits) on the size of exoplanets using both radial velocity measurements and direct imaging.

As she explained, radial velocity will give that minimum mass, but nothing more in terms of size.  But in an indirect way for now, direct imaging can provide some maximum mass.

If, for instance, astronomers know through the radial velocity method that exoplanet X orbits a certain star and is twice the size of Jupiter, they can then look for it using direct imaging with confidence that something is there.  Let’s say the precision of the imaging is such that if a planet six times the size of Jupiter was present they would — over a period of time — detect it.

A detection would indeed be great and the planet’s mass (and more) would then be known.  But if no planet is detected — as often happens — then astronomers still collect important information.  They know that the planet they are looking for is less than six Jupiter masses.  Since the radial velocity method already determined it was at least larger than two Jupiters, scientists would then know that the planet has a mass of between two and six Jupiters.

“All the techniques in our toolkit {of exoplanet searching} have their strengths and weaknesses,” she said.  “But using those techniques together is part of our future because there’s a potential to know much more.”

Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

NASA’s Planet-Hunter TESS Has Just Been Launched to Check Out the Near Exoplanet Neighborhood


This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).  Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics.  Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.

The TESS exoplanet hunter telescope launched today on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The space telescope will survey almost the entire sky, staring at the brightest and closest stars in an effort to find any planets that might be orbiting them. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On January 5, 2010, NASA issued  landmark press release : the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered its first five new extra-solar planets.

The previous twenty years had seen the discovery of just over 400 planets beyond the solar system. The majority of these new worlds were Jupiter-mass gas giants, many bunched up against their star on orbits far shorter than that of Mercury. We had learnt that our planetary system was not alone in the Galaxy, but small rocky worlds on temperate orbits might still have been rare.

Based on just six weeks of data, these first discoveries from Kepler were also hot Jupiters; the easiest planets to find due to their large size and swiftly repeating signature as they zipped around the star. But expectations were high that this would be just the beginning.

“We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect,” said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters at the time the discovery was announced. “It’s only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog.”

Morse’s prediction was to prove absolutely right. Now at the end of its life, the Kepler Space Telescope has found 2,343 confirmed planets, 30 of which are smaller than twice the size of the Earth and in the so-called “Habitable Zone”, meaning they receive similar levels of insolation –the amount of solar radiation reaching a given area–to our own planet.

Yet, the question remains: were any of these indeed Earth analogs?

In just a few decades, thanks to Kepler, the Hubble Space Telescope and scores of astronomers at ground-based observatories, we have gone from suspecting the presence of exoplanets to knowing there are more exoplanets than stars in our galaxy. (NASA/Ames Research Station; Jessie Dotson and Wendy Stenzel)

It was a question that Kepler was not equipped to answer. Kepler identifies the presence of a planet by looking for the periodic dip in starlight as a planet passes across the star’s surface. This “transit technique” reveals the planet’s radius and its distance from the star, which provides an estimate of the insolation level but nothing about the planet surface conditions.

To distinguish between surfaces like those of Earth or Venus, a new generation of space telescopes is required.

These are the tasks before NASA’s long-awaited flagship James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and  WFIRST  (if ultimately funded,)  Europe’s ARIEL mission and potentially what would be the 2030s flagship space telescope LUVOIR, if it is selected by NASA over three competitors. These telescopes will be able to probe exoplanet atmospheres and will have the capacity to measure the faint reflected light of the planets to study, via spectroscopy, their composition, geology and possibly biology.

But there is one big problem. While Kepler has found thousands of exoplanets, very few are suitable targets for these studies.

At the time of Kepler’s launch, we had no idea whether planet formation was common or anything about the distribution of planet sizes. Kepler therefore performed a planet census. By staring continuously at a small patch of the sky, Kepler waited out the time needed to see planets whose orbits took days, months and then years to complete.

From this, we discovered that planet formation takes place around the majority of stars, small planets are common and planets frequently get shoveled inwards onto short orbits close to the star. The cost of focusing on a small patch of sky is that many of the planets Kepler discovered were very distant. This is like staring into a forest; if you try to count 100 trees by looking in just one direction, many will be deep in the wood and far away from you.

Looping animated gif of the unique orbit TESS will fly. At 13.7 days, it is exactly half of the moon’s orbit, which lets the moon stabilize it. During the part of the orbit marked with blue, TESS will observe the sky, collecting science data. During the orange part, when TESS is closest to Earth, it will transmit that data to the ground. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)”

These distant planets are great for number counting, but they are too far away for their atmosphere or reflected light to be detected. In such cases, even enticing properties such as an orbit within the habitable zone have little meaning as follow-up studies that could probe signs of life are not possible.

Yet the census result that short-period planets were common allows for an entirely new type of mission. A survey to focus only on the bright, close stars whose planets would be near enough to detect their atmospheres with instruments such as the JWST. Prior to Kepler, we did not know such a telescope would find any planets. Now, we can be certain.

And that is why TESS was launched on Wednesday.

Standing for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS is a NASA mission to look for planets around bright stars less than 300 light years from Earth. All told, TESS will look at 200,000 stars spread over 85% of the sky in two years. For comparison, the field of view for Kepler had a sky coverage of just 0.25% and looked as deep as 3,000 light years into space.

Such a wide sweep means TESS cannot spend long staring at any one position. TESS will observe most of the sky for about 27 days, which is ample for detecting planets on ten day orbits, the most common orbital period found by Kepler. Over the ecliptic pole (90 degrees from the Sun’s position), TESS will observe somewhere between 27 and 351 days.  This region is where the JWST will be able to study planets throughout the year.

Image showing the planned viewing regions for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission. (Roland Vanderspek, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Bright and close by red dwarf stars, and the planets around them, are a prime target for TESS.  These stars are smaller and cooler than our sun, which makes it easier to spot the subtle dip in brightness from smaller planets. The cooler temperatures also mean that planets can orbit much closer to the star without roasting. A ten day orbit is still unlikely to be within the habitable zone, but orbits lasting between 20 – 40 days (which TESS will spot near the ecliptic poles) may receive similar insolation levels to the Earth.

A recent paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal by Sarah Ballard, an exoplanet astronomer at MIT, estimated that TESS may find as many as 1000 planets orbiting red dwarfs and around 15 of these may be less than twice the size of the Earth and orbit within the habitable zone; ideal candidates for a JWST observation.

Previous predictions for TESS suggested the telescope will find a total (all orbits around all stars) of 500 planets less than twice the size of the Earth and 20,000 exoplanets over the first two years. Ballard’s new numbers for planets around red dwarfs are 1.5 times higher than previous predictions, so these totals look likely to be lower limits.

While future atmospheric studies with JWST are exciting, these observations will still be very challenging. Time on this multi-purpose telescope will also be limited and we have to wait until 2020 for the launch. However, the bright stars targeted by TESS are also perfect for a second type of planet hunting method: the radial velocity technique.

This second-most prolific planet-hunting technique looks for the slight shift in the wavelength of the light as the star wobbles due to the gravitational pull of the planet. As the star moves away from Earth, the light waves stretch and redden. The light shifts towards blue as the star wobbles back our way. The result is a measurement of the planet’s minimum mass. The true mass can be found if the inclination of the orbit is known, which can be measured if the planet is also seen to transit.

With both a transit measurement from TESS and a radial velocity measurement from another ground-based instrument such as HARPS, on Europe’s La Silla Telescope in Chile, the average density of the planet can be calculated.

The transit technique identifies planets by the tiny drop in starlight measured as a planet passes in front of the star.


The radial velocity technique identifies planets via the shift in the wavelength of the light of a star as it wobbles due to the presence of a planet.

The planet density can reveal whether a world is gaseous or rocky or heavy in volatiles such as water. This is a particularly interesting question for the “super Earths” that are one of the most common class of planet found by Kepler, but for which we have no solar system analog. While an average density can only be a crude estimate of the planet interior, it can potentially be measured for a large number of the planets found by TESS and is an extremely useful guide for narrowing down planet formation theories.

But before TESS can find these planets, it first has to get into a rather unusual orbit. From launch on the SpaceX Falcon 9, TESS will boost its orbit using solid rocket motors (ignitable cylinders of solid propellent) until it is able to get a kick from the Moon’s gravity. The need for the lunar push was why the launch window for TESS was a very brief 30 seconds.

After the lunar shove, TESS will enter a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth, circling our planet every 13.7 days. This means TESS will orbit the Earth twice in the time it takes the Moon to orbit once: a situation known as a 2:1 resonance.

Planets that orbit in very close packed systems are often seen to be in similar resonant orbits. For examples, the TRAPPIST-1  worlds are in resonance and within our own solar system, the Jovian moons of Io, Europa and Ganymede orbit Jupiter in a 4:2:1 resonance.

This common occurrence is because resonant orbits are very stable, due to the pull from the gravity of the neighboring planets or moons exactly cancelling out. It is exactly for this reason that such an orbit has been chosen for TESS. With the gravitational tugs from the Moon cancelling out over an orbit, TESS’s path around the Earth will remain stable for decades. This potentially allows the mission to continue far beyond its designated two year lifespan.

TESS will take about 60 days to reach its final orbit and power-on, initialize and test its instruments. Science operations are expected to begin properly 68 days after launch. The first full data release from TESS is planned for next January, but with science operations starting in the summer we may hear the first results from TESS in the second half of this year.

Unlike with Kepler, this will be the data that will let us get to know our neighborhood.

Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

Diamonds and Science: The Deep Earth, Deep Time, and Extraterrestrial Crystal Rain

Deep Earth diamond with garnet inside.  These inclusions, which occur during the diamond formation process, provide not only a way to date the diamonds, but also a window into conditions in deep Earth when they wee formed.  (M. Gress, VU Amsterdam)

We all know that cut diamonds sparkle and shine, one of the great aesthetic creations from nature.

Less well known is that diamonds and the bits of minerals, gases and water encased in them offer a unique opportunity to probe the deepest regions of our planet.

Thought to be some of the oldest available materials found on Earth — some dated at up to 3.5 billion years old — they crystallize at great depth and under great pressure.

But from the point of view of those who study them, it’s the inclusions that loom large because allow them to know the age and depth of the diamond’s formation. And some think they can ultimately provide important clues to major scientific questions about the origin of water on Earth and even the origin of life.

The strange and remarkable subterranean world where the diamonds are formed has, of course, never been visited, but has been intensively studied using a variety of indirect measurements.  And this field has in recent weeks gotten some important discoveries based on those diamond inclusions.

First is the identification by Fabrizio Nestola of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Padua and colleagues of a mineral that has been theorized to be the fourth most  common on Earth, yet had never been found in nature or successfully synthesized in a laboratory.  As reported in the journal Nature, the mineral is a variant of calcium silicate (CaSiO3), created at a high pressure that gives it a uniquely deep-earth crystal structure called “perovskite,” which is the name of a mineral, too.

Mineral science does not allow a specimen to be named until it has actually been found in name, and now this very common form of mineral finally will get a name. But more important, it moves forward our understanding of what happens far below the Earth’s surface.



Where diamonds are formed and found on Earth. The super-deep are produced very far into the mantle and are pushed up by volcanoes and convection  The lithospheric diamonds are from the rigid upper mantle and crust and the alluvial diamonds are those which came to the surface and then were transported elsewhere by natural forces. (Fabrio Nestola, Joseph R Smyth)


The additional discovery was of a tiny bit of water ice known as ICE-VII inside several other deep diamonds.  While samples of H2O ice have been identified in diamonds before, none were ICE-VII which is formed only under tremendous deep-Earth pressure.

In addition to being a first, the ICE-VII discovery adds to the growing confidence of scientists that much H2O remains deep underground, with some inferring as much deep subsurface water as found in the surface oceans.  That paper was authored by University of Nevada, Las Vegas geoscientist Oliver Tschauner and colleagues, and appeared in the journal Science.

Diamonds are a solid form of carbon with a distinctive cubic crystal structure.  They are generally formed at depths of 100 to 150 miles in the Earth’s mantle, although a few have come from as deep as 500 to 600 miles down.  (And some come from space, as described in this article below and in a just published Nature Communications article about diamonds in the Almahata Sitta meteorite that crashed in Sudan in 2006.)

Those super-deep Earth diamonds form in a cauldron up to 1,000 degrees F and at 240,000 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.  They are made from carbon-containing fluids that dissolve minerals and replace them with what over time become diamonds.

Much more recently (tens to hundreds of million years ago), the would have been pushed to the surface in volcanic eruptions and deposited in igneous rocks known as kimberlites (blue-tinged in color and coarse grained) and lamproites (rich in potassium and also from deep in the mantle.)

The mantle – which makes up more than 80 percent of the Earth’s volume – is made of silicate minerals containing iron, aluminum, and calcium among others.  Blue diamonds are that color because of the presence of the trace mineral boron in the mantle.

And now we can add water the list as well.


Professor of Mineralogy Fabrizio Nestola presented on his recent work in advances in X-ray crystallography on diamonds and their inclusions in a talk title “Diamond, A Journey to the Center of the Earth.” One of his collaborators on the recent high-pressure calcium silicate paper is mantle geochemist Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta, where Nestola was recently a visiting professor. (

Nestola, who has been conducting his deep-Earth studies with a major grant from the European Union, is eager to take his already substantial work much further.

First he is looking for answers to the basic question of the origin of water on Earth (from incoming asteroids and comets or an integral component at formation) and ultimately to the origin of life.  Diamonds, he says, offer a pathway to study both subjects.

For water, his goal is to find a range of diamond-encircled samples that can be measured for their deuterium to hydrogen ratio — a key diagnostic to determining where in the solar system an object and its H2O originated,  Deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, is an isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron.

An example of a super-deep diamond from the Cullinan Mine, where scientists recently discovered a diamond that provides first evidence in nature of Earth’s fourth most abundant mineral–calcium silicate perovskite. (Petra Diamonds)

As the number of diamond samples with evidence of water grows, Nestola says it will be possible to determine how the D/H ratio changes over time and as a result gain a better understanding of where the Earth’s water came from.

When it comes to clues regarding the origin of life, Nestola will be looking for carbon isotopes in the diamonds.

“Actually, it cannot be excluded that carbon from a primordial organic matter can even travel to the lower mantle,” he told me. “The oldest diamonds were dated 3.5-3.6 billion years, so it would be fantastic to detect a carbon isotope signature of surface carbon in a 3.5 billion years diamond.  This could provide very strong input for the origin of life.”

Regarding the high-pressure form of calcium silicate that he and his colleagues recently identified, Nestola said that many scientists have tried to reproduce it in their labs but have found there’s no way to keep the mineral stable at surface pressures.  So the discovery had to be made from inside the nearly impermeable container of a diamond.

The diamond that contained the common yet never before found mineral was just 0.031 millimeters across, is also a super-rare specimen.

Adding to the interest in this discovery is that other trace minerals and elements found in the inclusion strongly suggest that the material was once on the Earth’s crust.  The logic is that it would have been subducted as a function of plate tectonics billions of years ago, then encased in a forming diamond deep in the mantle, and ultimately sent back up near the surface again.

Most diamonds are born much closer to Earth’s surface, between 93 and 124 miles deep. But this particular diamond would have formed at a depth of around 500 miles, the researchers said.

“The diamond keeps the mineral at the pressure where it was formed, and so it tells us a lot about the ancient deep-Earth environment,” Nestola said.  “This is how we’ll learn about deep Earth and ancient Earth.  And we hope about those central origin questions too.”


A South African diamond crystal on kimberlite, an igneous rock formed deep in the mantle and famous for the frequency with which it contains diamonds. (Shutterstock)

For his ICE-VII study, Tschauner used diamonds found in China, the Republic of South Africa, and Botswana that had been pushed up from inside Earth.  He believes the range of locations strongly suggests that the presence of the ICE-VII is a global phenomenon.

Scientists theorize the diamonds used in the study were born in the mantle under temperatures reaching more than 1,000-degrees Fahrenheit.

“One essential question that we are working on is how much water is actually stored in the mantle.  Is it oceans, or just a bit?” Tschauner said. “This work shows there can be free excess fluids in the mantle, which is important.”

The mantle is a vast reservoir of mostly solid and very hot rock under immense pressure beneath the crust. It has an upper layer, a transition zone, and a lower layer. The upper layer has a little bit of water, but scientist estimate 10 times more water may be in the transition zone, where the enormous pressure is changing crystal structures and minerals seem to be more soluble. Minerals in the lower layer don’t seem to hold water as well.

There’s already evidence of water in the mantle in different forms, such as water that has been broken up and incorporated into other minerals. But these diamonds contain water frozen into a special kind of ice crystal. There are lots of different ways water can crystallize into ice, but ice-VII is formed under higher pressures.

While the diamond was forming, it must have encapsulated some liquid water from around the transition zone. The high temperatures prevented this water from crystalizing under the high pressures. As geologic activity moved the diamonds to the surface, they maintained the high pressures in their rigid crystal structures—but the temperature dropped. This would have caused the water to freeze into ice-VII.

The discovery of Ice-VII in the diamonds is the first known natural occurrence of the aqueous fluid from the deep mantle. Ice-VII had been found as a solid in prior lab testing of materials under intense pressure. As described before,  it begins as a liquid in the mantle.

“These discoveries are important in understanding that water-rich regions in the Earth’s interior can play a role in the global water budget and the movement of heat-generating radioactive elements,” Tschauner said.

This discovery can help scientists create new, more accurate models of what’s going on inside the Earth, specifically how and where heat is generated under the Earth’s crust.

 “It’s another piece of the puzzle in understanding how our planet works,” Tschauner said.

A polished and enlarged section of the Esquel pallasite meteoritemeteorite that delivered tiny nano-diamonds to Earth. This is a common occurrence, as there is believed to be substantial amounts of high-pressure carbon in the galaxies, and thus some diamonds. (Trustees of the NHM, London)

The diamonds studied by researchers such as Nestola and Tschauner not the sort that would ever go to the market.  “They are very bad diamonds, bad for jewelers,” Nestola said, “but precious for geologists.”

Diamonds are by no means exclusive to Earth, and are becoming a significant area of study for planetary exoplanet scientists, too.

Not only are they contained in minute form in meteorites, but atmospheric data for the gas giant planets indicates that carbon is abundant in its famous hard crystal form elsewhere in the solar system and no doubt beyond.

Lightning storms turn methane into sooty carbon which, as it falls, hardens under great pressure into graphite and then diamond.

These diamond “hail stones” eventually melt into a liquid sea in the planets’ hot cores, researchers told a an American Astronomical Society conference in 2013.

The biggest diamonds would likely be about a centimeter in diameter – “big enough to put on a ring, although of course they would be uncut,” says Dr Kevin Baines, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The bottom line is that 1,000 tons of diamonds a year are being created on Saturn. People ask me – how can you really tell? Because there’s no way you can go and observe it.

“It all boils down to the chemistry. And we think we’re pretty certain.”

These potential raining diamonds, and all sorts of other extraterrestrial diamonds including possible diamond worlds, doubtless have their own scientifically compelling and important stories to tell.








Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to