A New Frontier for Exoplanet Hunting

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The spectrum from the newly-assembled EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer (EXPRES)  shines on Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer, who is principal investigator of the project. The stated goal of EXPRES is to find many Earth-size planets via the radial velocity method — something that has never been done. (Ryan Blackman/Yale)

The first exoplanets were all found using the radial velocity method of measuring the “wobble” of a star — movement caused by the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet.

Radial velocity has been great for detecting large exoplanets relatively close to our solar system, for assessing their mass and for finding out how long it takes for the planet to orbit its host star.

But so far the technique has not been able to identify and confirm many Earth-sized planets, a primary goal of much planet hunting.  The wobble caused by the presence of a planet that size has been too faint to be detected by current radial velocity instruments and techniques.

However, a new generation of instruments is coming on line with the goal of bringing the radial velocity technique into the small planet search.  To do that, the new instruments, together with their telescopes. must be able to detect a sun wobble of 10 to 20 centimeters per second.  That’s quite an improvement on the current detection limit of about one meter per second.

At least three of these ultra high precision spectrographs (or sometimes called spectrometers) are now being developed or deployed.  The European Southern Observatory’s ESPRESSO instrument has begun work in Chile; Pennsylvania State University’s NEID spectrograph (with NASA funding) is in development for installation at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona; and the just-deployed EXPRES spectrograph put together by a team led by Yale University astronomers (with National Science Foundation funding) is in place at the Lowell Observatory outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.

The principal investigator of EXPRES, Debra Fischer, attended the recent University of Cambridge Exoplanets2 conference with some of her team, and there I had the opportunity to talk with them. We discussed the decade-long history of the instrument, how and why Fischer thinks it can break that 1-meter-per-second barrier, and what it took to get it into attached and working.

 

This animation shows how astronomers use very precise spectrographs to find exoplanets. As the planet orbits its gravitational pull causes the parent star to move back and forth. This tiny radial motion shifts the observed spectrum of the star by a correspondingly small amount because of the Doppler shift. With super-sensitive spectrographs the shifts can be measured and used to infer details of a planet’s mass and orbit. ESO/L. Calçada)

One of the earliest and most difficult obstacles to the development of EXPRES, Fischer told me, was that many in the astronomy community did not believe it could work.

Their view is that precision below that one meter per second of host star movement cannot be measured accurately.  Stars have flares, sunspots and a generally constant churning, and many argue that the turbulent nature of stars creates too much “noise” for a precise measurement below that one-meter-per-second level.

Yet European scientists were moving ahead with their ESPRESSO ultra high precision instrument aiming for that 10-centimeter-per-second mark, and they had a proven record of accomplishing what they set out to do with spectrographs.

In addition to the definite competiti0n going on, Fisher also felt that radial velocity astronomers needed to make that leap to measuring small planets “to stay in the game” over the long haul.

She arrived at Yale in 2009 and led an effort to build a spectrograph so stable and precise that it could find an Earth-like planet.  To make clear that goal, the instrument is at the center of a project called “100 Earths.”

Building on experience gained from developing two earlier spectrographs, Fischer and colleagues began the difficult and complicated process of getting backers for EXPRES, of finding a telescope observatory that would house it (The Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell) and in the end adapting the instrument to the telescope.

And now comes the actual hard part:  finding those Earth-like planets.

As Fischer described it:  “We know from {the Kepler Telescope mission} that most stars have small rocky planets orbiting them.  But Kepler looked at stars very far away, and we’ll be looking at stars much, much closer to us.”

Nonetheless, those small planets will still be extremely difficult to detect due to all that activity on the host suns.

 

EXPRES in its vacuum-sealed chamber at the Lowell Observatory. will help detect Earth-sized planets in neighboring solar systems. (Ryan Blackman/Yale)

 

 

The 4.3 meter Discovery Channel Telescope in the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.  The photons collected by the telescope are delivered via optical fiber to the EXPRES instrument. (Boston University)

Spectrographs such as EXPRES are instruments astronomers use to study light emitted by planets, stars, and galaxies.

They are connected to either a ground-based or orbital telescope and they stretch out or split a beam of light into a spectrum of frequencies.  That spectrum is then analyzed to determine an object’s speed, direction, chemical composition, or mass.  With planets, the work involves determining (via the Doppler shift seen in the spectrum) whether and how much a sun is moving to and away from Earth due to the pull of a planet.

As Fisher and EXPRES postdoctoral fellow John Brewer explained it, the signal (noise) coming from the turbulence of the star is detectably different from the signal made by the wobble of a star due to the presence of an orbiting planet.

While these differences — imprinted in the spectrum captured by the spectrograph — have been known for some time, current spectrographs haven’t had sufficient resolving power to actually detect the difference.

If all works as planned for the EXPRES, Espresso and NEID spectrographs, they will have that necessary resolving power and so can, in effect, filter out the noise from the sun and identify what can only come from a planet-caused wobble.  If they succeed, they provide a major new pathway to  for astronomers to search for Earth-sized worlds.

“This is my dream machine, the one I always wanted to build,” Fischer said. “I had a belief that if we went to higher resolution, we could disentangle (the stellar noise from the planet-caused wobble.)

“I could still be wrong, but I definitely think that trying was the right choice to make.”

This image shows spectral data from the first light last December of the ESPRESSO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The light from a star has been dispersed into its component colors. This view has been colorised to indicate how the wavelengths change across the image, but these are not exactly the colors that would be seen visually. (ESO/ESPRESSO)

While Fischer and others have very high hopes for EXPRES, it is not the sort of  big ticket project that is common in astronomy.  Instead, it was developed and built primarily with a $6 million grant from National Science Foundation.

It was completed on schedule by the Yale team, though the actual delivering of EXPRES to Arizona and connecting it to the telescope turned out to be a combination of hair-raising and edifying.

Twice, she said, she drove from New Haven to Flagstaff with parts of the instrument; each trip in a Penske rental truck and with her son Ben helping out.

And then when the instrumentation was in process late last year, Fischer and her team learned that funds for the scientists and engineers working on that process had come to an end.

Francesco Pepe of the University of Geneva. He is the principal scientist for the ESPRESSO instrument and gave essential aid to the EXPRES team when they needed it most.

She was desperate, and sent a long-shot email to Francesco Pepe of University of Geneva, the lead scientist and wizard builder of several European spectrographs, including ESPRESSO. In theory, he and his instrument — which went into operation late last year at the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile — will be competing with EXPRES for discoveries and acknowledgement.

Nonetheless, Pepe heard Fischer out and understood the predicament she was in.  ESPRESSO had been installed and so he was able to contact an associate who freed up two instrumentation specialists who flew to Flagstaff to finish the work.  It was, Fischer said, an act of collegial generosity and scientific largesse that she will never forget.

Fischer is at the Lowell observatory now, using the Arizona monsoon as a time to clean up many details before the team returns to full-time observing.  She write about her days in an EXPRES blog.  Earlier, in March after the instrumentation had been completed and observing had commenced, she wrote this:

“Years of work went into EXPRES and as I look at this instrument, I am surprised that I ever had the audacity to start this project. The moment of truth starts now. It will take us a few more months of collecting and analyzing data to know if we made the right design decisions and I feel both humbled and hopeful. I’m proud of the fact that our design decisions were driven by evidence gleaned from many years of experience. But did I forget anything?”

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The Architecture of Solar Systems

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The architecture of planetary systems is an increasingly important factor to exoplanet scientists.  This illustration shows the Kepler-11 system where the planets are all roughly the same size and their orbits spaced at roughly the same distances from each other.  The the planets are, in the view of scientists involved with the study, “peas in a pod.” (NASA)

Before the discovery of the first exoplanet that orbits a star like ours, 51 Pegasi b, the assumption of solar system scientists was that others planetary systems that might exist were likely to be like ours.  Small rocky planets in the inner solar system, big gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune beyond and, back then, Pluto bringing up the rear

But 51 Peg b broke every solar system rule imaginable.  It was a giant and hot Jupiter-size planet, and it was so close to its star that it orbited in a little over four days.  Our Jupiter takes twelve years to complete an orbit.

This was the “everything we knew about solar systems is wrong” period, and twenty years later thinking about the nature and logic of solar system architecture remains very much in flux.

But progress is being made, even if the results are sometimes quite confounding. The umbrella idea is no longer that solar, or planetary, systems are pretty much like ours, but rather that the galaxy is filled with a wild diversity of both planets and planetary systems.

Detecting and trying to understand planetary systems is today an important focus 0f  exoplanet study, especially now that the Kepler Space Telescope mission has made clear that multi-planet systems are common.

As of early July, 632 multi planet systems have been detected and 2,841 stars are known to have at least one exoplanets.  Many of those stars with a singular planet may well have others yet to be found.

An intriguing newcomer to the diversity story came recently from University of Montreal astronomer Lauren Weiss, who with colleagues expanded on and studied some collected Kepler data.

What she found has been deemed the “peas in a pod” addition to the solar system menagerie.

Weiss was working with the California-Kepler Survey, which included a team of scientists pouring over, elaborating on and looking for patterns in, among other things, solar system architectures.

Weiss is part of the California-Kepler Survey team, which used the Keck Observatory to obtain high-resolution spectra of 1305 stars hosting 2025 transiting planets originally discovered by Kepler.

From these spectra, they measured precise sizes of the stars and their planets, looking for patterns in, among other things, solar system architectures.  They focused on 909 planets belonging to 355 multi-planet systems. By improving the measurements of the radii of the stars, Weiss said, they were able to recalculate the radii of all the planets.

So Weiss studied hundreds systems and did find a number of surprising, unexpected patterns.

In many systems, the planets were all roughly the same size as the planet in orbit next to them. (No tiny-Mars-to-gigantic-Jupiter transitions.)  This kind of planetary architecture was not found everywhere but it was quite common — more common than random planet sizing would predict.

“The effect showed up with smaller planets and larger ones,” Weiss told me during last week’s University of Cambridge Exoplanets2 conference. “The planets in each system seemed to know about the sizes of the neighbors,” and for thus far unknown reasons maintained those similar sizes.

What’s more, Weiss and her colleagues found that the orbits of these “planets in a pod” were generally an equal distance apart in “multi” of three planets or more. In other words, the distance between the orbits of planet A and planet B was often the same distance as between the orbits of planet B and planet C.

Lauren Weiss at the W.M Keck Observatory.

So not only were many of the planets almost the same size, but they were in orbits spaced at distances from each other that were once again much more similar than a random distribution would predict. In the Astronomical Journal article where she and her colleagues described the phenomena, they also found a “wall” defining how close together the planets orbited.

The architecture of these systems, Weiss said, reflected the shapes and sizes of the protoplanetary in which they were formed.  And it would appear that the planets had not been disrupted by larger planets that can dramatically change the structure of a solar system — as happened with Jupiter in our own.

But while those factors explain some of what was found, Weiss said other astrophysical dynamics needed to be at play as well to produce this common architecture.  The stability of the system, for instance, would be compromised if the orbits were closer than that “wall,” as the gravitational pull of the planets would send them into orbits that would ultimately result in collisions.

The improved spectra of the Kepler planets were obtained from 2011 to 2015, and the targets are mostly located between 1,000 and 4,000 light-years away from Earth.

The architectures of California-Kepler study multi-planet systems with four planets or more.  Each row corresponds to the planets around one and the circles represent the radii of planets in the system.  Note how many have lines of planets that are roughly the same size. (Lauren Weiss, The Astronomical Journal.)

Planetary system architecture was a significant topic at the Cambridge Exoplanets2 conference.  While the detection of individual exoplanets remains important in the field, it is often treated as a precursor to the ultimate detection of systems with more planets. 

The TRAPPIST-1 system, discovered in 2015 by a Belgian team, is probably the most studied and significant of those discovered so far.

The ultra-cool dwarf star hosts seven Earth-sized, temperate exoplanets in or near the “habitable zone.” As described by one of those responsible for the discovery, Brice-Olivier Demory of the Center for Space and Habitability University of Bern, the system “represents a unique setting to study the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets that formed in the same protoplanetary disk.”

The Trappist-1 architecture features not only the seven rocky planets, but also a resonance system whereby the planets orbits at paces directly related to the planets nearby them.  In other words, one planet may make two orbits in exactly the time that it takes for the next planet to make three orbits.

All the Trappist-1 planets are in resonance to another system planet, though they are not all in resonance to each other.

The animation above from the NASA Ames Research Center shows the orbits of the Trappist-1 system.  The planets pass so close to one another that gravitational interactions are significant, and to remain stable the orbital periods are nearly resonant. In the time the innermost planet completes eight orbits, the second, third, and fourth planets complete five, three, and two respectively.

The system is very flat and compact. All seven of TRAPPIST-1’s planets orbit much closer to their star than Mercury orbits the sun. Except for TRAPPIST-1b, they orbit farther than the Galilean moons — three of which are also in resonance around Jupiter.

The distance between the orbits of TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c is only 1.6 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.  A year on the closest planet passes in only 1.5 Earth days, while the seventh planet’s year passes in only 18.8 days.

Given the packed nature of the system, the planets have to be in particular orbits that keep them from colliding.  But they also have to be in orbits that ensure that all or most of the planets aren’t on the same side of the star, creating a severe imbalance that would result in chaos.

“The Trappist-1 system has entered into a zone of stability,” Demory told me, also at the Exoplanets2 conference.  “We think of it as a Darwinian effect — the system survives because of that stability created through the resonance.  Without the stability, it would die. ”

He said the Trappist-1 planets were most likely formed away from their star and migrated inward.  The system had rather a long time to form, between seven and eight billion years.

The nature of some of the systems now being discovered brings to mind that early reaction to the detection of 51 Pegasi b, the world’s first known exoplanet.

The prevailing consensus that extra-solar systems would likely be similar to ours was turned on its head by the giant planet’s closeness to its host star.  For a time many astronomers thought that hot Jupiter planets would be found to be common.

But 20 years later they know that hot Jupiters — and the planetary architecture they create — are rather unusual, like the architecture of our own solar system.

With each new discovery of a planetary system, the understanding grows that while solar systems are governed by astrophysical forces, they nonetheless come in all sizes and shapes. Diversity is what binds them together.

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Exoplanet Science Flying High

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An artist’s concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star, as of February 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Early this spring, the organizers of an exoplanet science gathering at Cambridge University put out the word that they would host a major meeting this summer.  Within a week, the 300 allotted slots had been filled by scientists aspiring and veteran, and within a short time the waiting list was up to 150 more.

Not the kind of reaction you might expect for a hardcore, topic-specific meeting, but exoplanet science is now in a phase of enormous growth and excitement.  With so many discoveries already made and waiting to be made, so many new (and long-standing) questions to be worked on, so much data coming in to be analyzed and turned into findings,  the field has something of a golden shine.

What’s more, it has more than a little of the feel of the Wild West.

Planet hunters Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla site. (L. Weinstein/Ciel et Espace Photos)

Didier Queloz, a professor now at Cambridge but in the mid 1990s half of the team that identified the first exoplanet, is the organizer of the conference.

“It sometimes seems like there’s not much exploration to be done on Earth, and the opposite is the case with exoplanets,” he told me outside the Cambridge gathering.

“I think a lot of young scientists are attracted to the excitement of exoplanets, to a field where there’s so much that isn’t known or understood.”

Michel Mayor of the Observatory of Geneva — and the senior half of the team that detected the first exoplanet orbiting a star like our sun, 51 Pegasi b– had opened the gathering with a history of the search for extra-solar planets.

That search had some conceptual success prior to the actual 1995 announcement of an exoplanet discovery, but several claims of having actually found an exoplanet had been made and shown to be wanting.  Except for the relative handful of scientists personally involved, the field was something of a sideshow.

“At the time we made our first discovery, I basically knew everyone in the field.  We were on our own.”

Now there are thousands of people, many of them young people, studying exoplanets.  And the young people, they have to be smarter, more clever, because the questions are harder.”

And enormous progress is being made.

The pace of discovery is charted here by Princeton University physicist and astronomer Joshua Winn. First is a graphic of all the 3,735 exoplanet discoveries made since 1995, and then the 1943 planets found just from 2016 to today.

The total number and distribution of known exoplanets, identified by the mass of the planet and their distance from their host star. A legend to the four major techniques for finding exoplanets is in the lower right The circled planets in green are those in our solar system. All the data comes from the NASA Exoplanet archive. (Joshua Winn, Princeton University)

 

Based on published papers, Winn found that the discovery of 1,943 new planets had been announced in papers between 2016 and today. Winn said the number is not formal as some debate remains whether a small number are planets or not.

Many of the planets discovered via the transit method come from the Kepler and K2 missions.  Kepler revolutionized the field with its four years of intensively observing a region of the sky for planet transits in front of their star.

The K2 mission began after the second of Kepler’s four stabilizing wheels failed. But adjustments were made and the second incarnation of Kepler has continued to find planets, though in a different way.

While a majority of exoplanets have been detected via the transit method, the first exoplanet was discovered by Mayor and Queloz via the radial velocity method — which involves ground-based measurements of the “wobble” of a star caused by the gravitational pull of a planet.

Many astronomers continue to use the technique because it provides more information about the minimum mass and orbital eccentricity of planet.  In addition, two high-precision, next-generation spectrometers for radial velocity measuring are now coming on line and are expected to significantly improve the detection of smaller planets using that method.

One is the ESPRESSO instrument (the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic) recently installed by the European Southern Observatory on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. The other newcomer is EXPRES, developed by scientists at Yale University, with support for the National Science Foundation.  The instrument, designed go look for Earth-sized planets, has been installed on the Lowell Observatory Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona.

 

The Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) will search for exoplanets with unprecedented precision by looking at the minuscule changes in the properties of light coming from their host stars. This picture shows the front-end structure where the light beams coming from the four Very Large Telescopes are brought together and fed into fibers. They then deliver the photons to a spectrograph in another room, which makes the radial velocity measurements. (Giorgio Calderone, INAF Trieste)

The conference, which will go through the week, focuses both generally and in great detail on many of the core questions of the field:  how exoplanets are formed, what kind of stars are likely to produce what kinds of planets, the makeup and dynamics of exoplanet atmospheres, planet migration, the architecture of planetary systems.

And, of course, where new exoplanets might be found.  (Mostly around red dwarf stars, several scientists argued, and many in the relatively near neighborhood.)

Notably, many of the exoplanet questions being studied have clear implications for better understanding our own solar system.  In fact, it is often said that we won’t really understand the workings and history of our solar system, planets, moons, asteroids and more until we know a lot more about the billions and billion of other planetary systems in our galaxy.

Also notable for this conference is the lack of emphasis on biosignatures, habitability and the search for life beyond Earth.  The conference is billed as being about “exoplanet science,” and Queloz explained the absence of habitability and life-detection talks was based on the scientific progress made, or not made, in the past two years.

When it comes to planet detection, however, theory and practice are coming together in searches for exoplanets around smaller and cooler stars, and even around young stars where planets are just forming.  Such a planet discovery was announced this week coming from the European Space Agency’s Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument.

 

The first clear image of a planet caught while being formed,around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet is visible as a bright point to the right of center. The star at the center is blacked out by a coronagraph mask that blocks its blinding light. The SPHERE instrument is on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (A. Müller et al./ESO)

 

The Cambridge exoplanet conference is the second in a series begun two years ago by Queloz and Kevin Heng, an exoplanet atmosphere theoretician at the University of Bern and director of the Center for Space and Habitability.

The two had been struck by how European exoplanet conferences seemed to be dominated by senior scientists, with little time or space for the many younger men and women coming up in the field.  The presentations also seemed more long and formal than needed.

So using funds from their own institutions to seed the conferences, Heng set up the first in Davos, Switzerland and Didier the second in Cambridge.  The idea has caught on, and similar gathering are now scheduled at two year intervals in Heidelberg, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Porto and hopefully later in Asia, too.

There is no dearth of other exoplanet gatherings around the world, and attendees report that they are also very well attended.

But given sheer amount of work now being done in the field that was so lonely only twenty years ago,  they surely appear to be warranted.

And newsworthy, though no always reportable.

Three of the papers discussed in the Cambridge conference, for instance, are under reporting embargo from the journal Nature. And information from George Ricker, principal investigator for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), about the early days of the mission are also under embargo.  Suffice it to say, however, that Ricker reported that things are going well for the exoplanet-hunting telescope.

 

This test image from one of the four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captures a swath of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. TESS is designed to study exoplanets around the brightest stars, and is expected to cover more than 400 times the amount of sky shown in this image. (NASA/MIT/TESS)

While the initial discovery of an exoplanet was difficult for sure, what the much, much larger field is grappling with now is clearly even more challenging.  With that in mind, I asked Queloz what he hoped to see from exoplanets in the years ahead.

“We have reached the point where we know stars usually have planets.  But what we are still looking for is an Earth twin — a planet clearly like ours.  That we have not found.  Before I retire, what I hope for is the discovery of that Earth twin.”

 

 

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Planets Still Forming Detected in a Protoplanetary Disk

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An artist rendering of infant star HD 163296 with three protoplanets forming in its disk  The planets were discovered using a new mode of detection — identifying unusual patterns in the flow of gas within a protoplanetary disk. (NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello)

Just as the number of planets discovered outside our solar system is large and growing — more than 3,700 confirmed at last count — so too is the number of ingenious ways to find exoplanets ever on the rise.

The first exoplanets were found by measuring the “wobble” in their host stars caused by the gravitational pull of the planets, then came the transit technique that measured dips in the light from stars as planets passed in front of them, followed by the direct imaging of moving objects deemed to be planets, and numerous more.

A new technique can now be added to the toolkit, one that is useful only in specific galactic circumstances but is nonetheless ingenious and intriguing.

By detecting unusual patterns in the flow of gas within the protoplanetary disk of a young star, two teams of astronomers have confirmed the distinct, telltale hallmarks of newly formed planets orbiting the infant star.

In other words, the astronomers found planets in the process of being formed, circling a star very early in its life cycle.

These results came thanks to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and are presented in a pair of papers appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Richard Teague, an astronomer at the University of Michigan and principal author on one of the papers, said that his team looked at “the localized, small-scale motion of gas in a star’s protoplanetary disk. This entirely new approach could uncover some of the youngest planets in our galaxy, all thanks to the high-resolution images coming from ALMA.”

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HD 163296 as seen in dust. ( ALMA: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO; A. Isella; B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF.

To make their respective discoveries, each team analyzed the data from various ALMA observations of the young star HD 163296, which is about 4 million years old and located about 330 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.

Rather than focusing on the dust within the disk, which was clearly imaged in an earlier ALMA observation, the astronomers instead studied the distribution and motion of carbon monoxide (CO) gas throughout the disk.

As explained in a release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which manages the American operations of the multi-national ALMA, molecules of carbon monoxide naturally emit a very distinctive millimeter-wavelength light that ALMA can observe. Subtle changes in the wavelength of this light due to the Doppler effect provide a glimpse into the motion of the gas in the disk.

If there were no planets, gas would move around a star in a very simple, predictable pattern known as Keplerian rotation.

“It would take a relatively massive object, like a planet, to create localized disturbances in this otherwise orderly motion,” said Christophe Pinte of Monash University in Australia and lead author on the other of the two papers. 

And that’s what both teams found.

ALMA is a radio astronomy array located in Chile and set 16,000 feet above sea level. It’s a partnership between the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in collaboration with the Republic of Chile. ALMA, which began operations in 2013, is used to observe light from space in comparatively long radio wavelengths. ((ESO/José Francisco Salgado )

Detecting planets within a protoplanetary disk — or finding theorized planets within those disks — is a big deal. 

That’s because information about the characteristics of very young planets orbiting young stars can potentially add substantially to one of the long-debated questions of planetary science:  How exactly did those billions upon billions of planets out there form?

The leading theory of planet formation, the “core accretion model,” has planets forming slowly — with dust, small objects and then planetesimals smashing into a rocky core and leaving matter behind.  In this model, the planet building takes place in a region close to the protoplanet’s stars.

Another theory looks to gravitational instabilities in the disk, arguing that giant planets can form quickly and far from their host stars.

The distribution of current solar system planets and beyond can give some clues based on the size, type and distribution of those planets.  But planets migrate and evolve, and they have never been studied before they had a chance to do much of either.

The techniques currently used for finding exoplanets in fully formed planetary systems — such as measuring the wobble of a star or how a transiting planet dims starlight — don’t lend themselves to detecting protoplanets.

With this new method for looking into those early protoplanetary disks, the hunt for infant planets becomes possible.  And the results in terms of understanding planet formation look to be very promising.

“Though thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the last few decades, detecting protoplanets is at the frontier of science,” said Pinte.

 

These earlier images from ALMA reveal details in the planet-forming disk around a nearby sun-like star, TW Hydrae, including an intriguing gap at the same distance from the star as the Earth is from the sun. This structure may mean that an infant version of our home planet is beginning to form there, although these dust gaps are considered to be suggestive rather than conclusive. ( S. Andrews; Harvard-Smithsonian CfA, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)}ALMA

This is not the first time that ALMA images of protoplanetary disks have been used to identify what seem to be protoplanets.

In 2016, a team led by Andrea Isella of Rice University reported the possible detection of two planets, each the size of Saturn, orbiting the same star that is the subject of this week’s report, HD 163296.

These possible planets, which are not yet fully formed, revealed themselves by the dual imprint they left in both the dust and the gas portions of the star’s protoplanetary disk.

But at the time that paper was published, in Physical Review Letters, Isella said the team was focused primarily on the dust in the disks and the gaps they created, and as a result they could not be certain that the features they found were created by a protoplanet.

Teague’s team also studied the dust gaps in the disk of HD 163296, and concluded they provided only  circumstantial evidence of the presence of protoplanets.  What’s more, that kind of detection could not be used to accurately estimate the masses of the planets.

“Since other mechanisms can also produce ringed gaps in a protoplanetary disk,” he said, “it is impossible to say conclusively that planets are there by merely looking at the overall structure of the disk.”

But studying the behavior of the gas allowed for a much greater degree of confidence.

 

Composite image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HD 163296. The inner red area shows the dust of the protoplanetary disk. The broader blue disk is the carbon monoxide gas in the system. ALMA observed dips in the concentration and behavior of carbon monoxide in outer portions of the disk, strongly suggesting the presence of planets being formed. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); A. Isella; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The team led by Teague identified two distinctive planet-like patterns in the disk, one at approximately 80 astronomical units (AU) from the star and the other at 140 AU. (An astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the sun.)  The other team, led by Pinte, identified the third at about 260 AU from the star. The astronomers calculate that all three planets are similar in mass to Jupiter.

The two teams used variations on the same technique, which looked at anomalies in the flow of the gas – as seen in the shifting wavelengths of the CO emission — that would indicate it was interacting with a massive object.

Teague and his team measured variations in the gas’s velocity. This revealed the impact of several planets on the gas motion nearer to the star.

Pinte and his team more directly measured the gas’s actual velocity, which is better precise method when studying the outer portion of the disk and can more accurately pinpoint the location of a potential planet.

“Although dust plays an important role in planet formation and provides invaluable information, gas accounts for 99 percent of a protoplanetary disks’ mass,” said coauthor Jaehan Bae of the Carnegie Institute for Science.

So while those images of patterns within the concentric rings of a protoplanetary disk are compelling and seem to be telling an important story, it’s actually the gas that is the key.

This is all an important coup for ALMA, which saw its first light in 2013.  The observatory was not designed with protoplanet detection and characterization as a primary goal, but it is now front and center.

Coauthor Til Birnstiel of the University Observatory of Munich said the precision provided by ALMA is “mind boggling.” In a system where gas rotates at about 5 kilometers per second, he said,  ALMA detected velocity changes as small as a few meters per second.

“Oftentimes in science, ideas turn out not to work or assumptions turn out to be wrong,” he said. “This is one of the cases where the results are much more exciting than what I had imagined.

 

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Joining the Microscope and the Telescope in the Search for Life Beyond Earth

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Niki Parenteau of NASA’s Ames Research Center is a microbiologist working in the field of exoplanet and Mars biosignatures. She adds a laboratory biology approach to a field generally known for its astronomers, astrophysicists and planetary scientists. (Marisa Mayer, Stanford University.)

 

The world of biology is filled with labs where living creatures are cultured and studied, where the dynamics of life are explored and analyzed to learn about behavior, reproduction, structure, growth and so much more.

In the field of astrobiology, however, you don’t see much lab biology — especially when it comes to the search for life beyond Earth.  The field is now largely focused on understanding the conditions under which life could exist elsewhere, modeling what chemicals would be present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet with life, or how life might begin as an organized organism from a theoretical perspective.

Yes, astrobiology includes and learns from the study of extreme forms of life on Earth, from evolutionary biology, from the research into the origins of life.

But the actual bread and butter of biologists — working with lifeforms in a lab or in the environment — plays a back seat to modeling and simulations that rely on computers rather than actual life.

Niki Parenteau with her custom-designed LED array, can reproduce the spectral features of different simulated stellar and atmospheric conditions to test on primitive microbes. (Marc Kaufman)

There are certainly exceptions, and one of the most interesting is the work of Mary “Niki” Parenteau at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area.

A microbiologist by training, she has been active for over five years now in the field of exoplanet biosignatures — trying to determine what astronomers could and should look for in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Working in her lab with actual live bacteria in laboratory flasks, test tubes and tanks, she is conducting traditional biological experiments that have everything to do with astrobiology.

She takes primitive bacteria known to have existed in some form on the early Earth, and she blasts them with the radiation that would have hit the planet at the time to see under what conditions the organisms can survive.  She has designed ingenious experiments using different forms of ultraviolet light and a LED array that simulate the broad range of radiations that would come from different types of stars as well.

What makes this all so intriguing is that her work uses, and then moves forward, cutting edge modeling from astronomers and astrobiologists regarding thick photochemical hazes understood to have engulfed the early Earth — making the planet significantly colder but also possibly providing some protection from deadly ultraviolet radiation.

That was a time when the atmosphere held very little oxygen, and when many organisms had to make their living via carbon dioxide and sulfur-based photosynthesis that did not use water and did not produce oxygen. This kind of photosynthesis has been the norm for much of the history of life on Earth, and certainly could be common on many exoplanets orbiting other stars as well.

So anything learned about how these early organisms survived in frigid conditions with high ultraviolet radiation — and what potentially detectable byproducts they would have produced under those conditions — would be important in the search for biosignatures and extraterrestrial life.

Parenteau has spent years learning from astronomers working to find ways to characterize exoplanet biosignatures, and she has been eager to convert her own work into something useful to them.

“These are not questions that can be answered by one discipline,” she told me.  “I certainly understand that when it comes to exoplanet biosignatures and life detection, astronomy has to be in the lead.  But biologists have a role to play, especially when it comes to characterizing what life produces.”

When haze built up in the atmosphere of Archean Earth, the young planet might have looked like this artist’s interpretation – a pale orange dot. A team led by Goddard scientists thinks the haze was self-limiting, cooling the surface by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Kelvins) – not enough to cause runaway glaciation. The team’s modeling suggests that atmospheric haze might be helpful for identifying earthlike exoplanets that could be habitable. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy)

Here is the back story to Parenteau’s work:

Recent work by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer and astrobiologist Giada Arney and colleagues points to the existence of a thick haze around the early Archean Earth and probably today around some, and perhaps many, exoplanets.  This haze — which is more like pollution than clouds — is produced by the interaction of strong incoming radiation and chemicals (most commonly methane and carbon dioxide) already in the atmosphere.

The haze, Arney concluded based on elaborate modeling of those radiation-chemical interactions, would be hard on any life that might exist on the planet because it would reduce surface temperatures significantly, though probably not always fatally.

Giada Arney is an astronomer and astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  As with Parenteau, her general approach to science was formed at the University of Washington’s pioneering Virtual Planetary Laboratory. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

On the other hand, the haze would also have the effect of blocking 84 percent of the destructive ultraviolet radiation bombarding the planet — especially the most damaging ultraviolet-C light that would otherwise destroy nucleic acids in cells and disrupt the working of DNA.  (Ultraviolet-C radiation is used as a microbial disinfectant.)

Ozone in our atmosphere now plays the role of blocking the most destructive forms of UV radiation, but ozone is formed from oxygen and on early Earth there was very little oxygen at all.

So how did organisms survive the radiation assault?  Might it have been that haze? And might there be hazes surrounding exoplanets as well?  (None have been found so far.)

It’s difficult enough to sort through the potentially protective role of a haze on early Earth.  To do it for exoplanets requires not only an understanding of the effects of a haze on ultraviolet light, but also how the dynamics of a haze would change based on the amounts and forms of radiation emitted by different types of stars.

It’s all very complicated, but the answers needn’t be theoretical, Arney concluded. They could be tested in a lab.

And that’s where Parenteau comes in, with her desire and ability to design biological experiments that might help scientists understand better how to look for life on distant exoplanets.

“I knew that (Parenteau) had been super interested in this kind of question for a long time,” Arney said.  “She one of the few people in the world with the know-how to simulate an atmosphere, and probably the only one in the world who could do the experiment.”

The 48 LEDs (light-emitting diodes) of the board designed and created by Parenteau and Ames intern Cameron Hearne. Each one is independently controlled and can be used to simulate the amount of radiation arriving on a planetary surface — taking into account the flux from the planet’s star and some aspects of its atmosphere.  A microbe is then exposed to the radiation to see whether or how it can survive. (Niki Parenteau.)

Parenteau’s experiment at first looks pretty low-tech, but in fact it’s very much custom-designed and custom-built.

The ultraviolet bulbs include the powerful, germicidal ultraviolet-C variety, some of the glass for the experiment is made of special quartz that is transparent to that ultraviolet light, the LED array has 48 tiny bulbs that can be controlled by software to provide different amounts and kinds of light as identified and provided by Arney

Before designing and making her own LED board with Ames intern Cameron Hearne, Parenteau met with solar panel specialists who might be able to provide an instrument she could use, but it turned out they were very expensive and not nearly as versatile as she wanted.  Having grown up on a farm in northern Idaho, Parenteau is comfortable with making things from scratch, and her experiments reflect that comfort and talent.

How would Parenteau determine whether the haze does indeed protect the microbial cells after exposing them to the various radiation regimes?  This is how she explained the process, which measures the number of cells living or dead given a simulated UV and stellar bombardment:

“Imagine the cells as soap bubbles in a clear glass.  If you look through the glass, the soap bubbles prevent you from seeing through and the glass has a higher ‘optical density.’ However, if you pop or lyse the soap bubbles, suddenly you can see through the glass and the optical density decreases. 

“The latter represents dead ‘popped’ cells that were killed by the UV irradiation.   I predict that by simulating the spectral qualities of the haze, which decreases the UV flux by 84%, more cells will survive.”

The Parenteau-Arney collaboration is being funded through a National Astrobiology Institute grant to the University of Washington’s famously-interdisciplinary Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

The microbes-and-haze experiment is one of many that Parenteau is working on in the general field of biosignatures.  While the haze experiment is primarily designed to determine if microbes could survive a UV bombardment if a haze was present, she is also working on the central question of what might constitute a biosignature.

With that in mind, she is also measuring the gases produced by microbes under different radiation and atmospheric conditions, and that is directly applicable to searching for extraterrestrial life.

A densely-packed community of microbes, including oxygen-producing cyanobacteria as well as anoxygenic purple and green bacteria, being studied with Parenteau’s LED array. A central question involves what gases are emitted and might be detectable on a distant planet. (Niki Parenteau)

 

Parenteau’s lab glove box with green, purple and other bacteria that is regularly exposed to radiation conditions believed to have existed on early Earth when a photochemical haze is believed to have been present.  (Marc Kaufman)

If and when she does find particularly interesting results in the gas measurements inside the anaerobic glove box, she says, she knows where to go.

“I would hand the results to an astronomer.  We could say that if a particular kind of exoplanet with a particular atmosphere had microbial life, this is the suite of gases we would expect to be emitted.”

Those gases, Parenteau says, may be photochemically altered as they as they rise through the planet’s atmosphere to the upper levels where they could be detected by the telescopes of the future. But in the challenging and complex world of biosignatures, every bit of hard-won data is most valuable since it could some day lead to a discovery for the ages.

 

 

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