A Solar System Found Crowded With Seven Earth-Sized Exoplanets

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Seven Earth-sized rocked planets have been detected around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. The system is 40 light years away, but is considered to be an easy system to study — as explanet research goes. (NASA)

Seven planets orbiting one star.  All of them roughly the size of Earth.  A record three in what is considered the habitable zone, the distance from the host star where liquid water could exist on the surface.  The system a mere 40 light-years away.

The latest impressive additions to the world of exoplanets orbit the dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, named after a European Southern Observatory telescope in Chile.

Previously a team of astronomers based in Belgium discovered three  planets around this dim star, but now that number has increased to include the largest number of Earth-sized planets found to date, as well as the largest number in one solar system in the habitable zone.

This is a very different kind of sun-and-exoplanet system than has generally been studied.  The broad quest for an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone has focused on stars of the size and power of our sun.  But this one is 8 percent the mass of our sun —  not that much larger than Jupiter — and with a luminosity (or energy) but 0.05 percent of that put out by our sun.

The TRAPPIST-1 findings underscore one of the recurring and intriguing aspects of the exoplanet discoveries of the past two decades — the solar systems out there are a menagerie of very different shapes and sizes, with exoplanets of a wild range of sizes orbiting an equally wide range of types and sizes of stars.

Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium, and lead author of the discovery reported in the journal Nature, put it this way: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth.”

At a NASA press conference, he also said that “small stars like this are much more frequent than stars like ours.  Now we have seven Earth-sized planets to study, three in the habitable or ‘Goldilocks’ zone, and that’s quite promising for search for life beyond Earth.”

He said that the planets are so close to each other than if a person was on the surface of one, the others would provide a wonderful close-up view, rather like our view of the moon.

This diagram compares the orbits of the newly-discovered planets around the faint red star TRAPPIST-1 with the Galilean moons of Jupiter and the inner Solar System. All the planets found around TRAPPIST-1 orbit much closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun, but as their star is far fainter, they are exposed to similar levels of irradiation as Venus, Earth and Mars in the Solar System.

The orbits of the Trappist-1 planets are not much greater than those of Jupiter’s Galilean moon system, and are considerably smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the solar system. However, TRAPPIST-1’s small size and low temperature mean that the energy reaching its planets is similar to that received by the inner planets in our solar system. TRAPPIST-1c, d and f, for instance, receive similar amounts of energy as Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.

All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, the authors said, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others.  So far there has been no confirmation of water on the planets, but the search has intensified.

“The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our sun,” co-author Amaury Triaud said.  “Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in our solar system if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1.”

Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces. The orbital distance of the system’s outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbor liquid water — assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring

TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the sweet spot for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star’s habitable zone and could host oceans of surface water if other conditions were present.

As Sara Seager, an MIT pioneer in the study of exoplanet atmospheres, said in the NASA press conference, “with this discovery we’ve taken a giant, accelerated leap forward.  In one system, we have room so that if one planet in the habitable zones is not quite right (for study and possibly biology) we have many other chances.  This Goldilocks has many sisters.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, added: “This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

The telescope at the center of the discoveries is TRAPPIST-South (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South), s small 60 cm telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile devoted to the study of planetary systems.  The robotic telescope is operated from a control room in Liège, Belgium. The project is led by the Department of Astrophysics, Geophysics and Oceanography of the University of Liège, in close collaboration with the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland). TRAPPIST–South is mostly funded by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research with the participation of the Swiss National Science Foundation. (ESO)

The discovery of the four additional Earth-sized planets was made during a global campaign of observataion, most especially by NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope.

Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, called it “the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations…Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Because the Trappist-1 system is so relatively easy to observe, and because it is providing such riches, many ground- based observatories have joined in the search.

Dips in the star’s light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it — events known as transits — allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.

These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team leader Gillon said the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, can potentially begin a rigorous examination of the atmospheres of the planets.

“These planets are accesible to observations with JWST.  We will be able to study the atmospheres, the greenhouse gas compositions.  We will search for gases that might be produced by life,” said Gillon.

This 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. The system has been revealed through observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the ground-based TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope, as well as other ground-based observatories.  (NASA)

But there are also significant barriers to habitability in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Because the planets are so close to their host star — the first has an orbit of 1.5 days, the second an orbit of 2.4 days and the third an ill-defined orbit of between 4.5 and 73 days — that means they are tidally-locked, as is our moon.  Not long ago, exoplanet scientists doubted that a planet that doesn’t rotate can be truly habitable since the extremes of hot and cold would be too great.  That view has changed with creation of models that suggest tidal locking is not necessarily fatal for habitability, but it most likely does make it more difficult to achieve.

A larger potential barrier is that the dwarf star once was quite different.  Jonathan Fortney, a University of California at Santa Clara specialist in dwarf stars and brown dwarfs (objects which are too large to be called planets and too small to be stars), focused on that stellar history:

“One thing to keep in mind is that this star was much much brighter in the past,” he said in an email a while back. “M stars (like TRAPPIST-1) are hottest when they are young and take a long time to cool off and settle down.  Their energy comes from contraction at first.  A star like this takes 1 billion years to even settle onto the main sequence (where it starts burning hydrogen).”

Gillon said that the age of the star system was not well understood, but that it was at least a half billion years old.

Shawn Domogal-Goldman, a research space scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center with a focus on exoplanets, said that the big news of the day for him is that the questions raised about conditions on red or M dwarf stars is that “they’re all testable on the TRAPPIST-1 planets in the near term.

“We can do follow-up observations of these worlds with the Hubble and JWST. Yesterday, I would have said ‘you can test these hypotheses with Webb but you kind of need the perfect target.’ Well, today we kind of have the perfect target.”

This diagram shows how the light of the dim red ultra cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 fades as each of its seven known planets passes in front of it and blocks some of its light. The larger planets create deeper dips and the more distance ones have longer lasting transits as they are orbiting more slowly. These data were obtained from observations made with the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope. (NASA)

From the total of 2,687 stars known to have exoplanets (as of February 15, 2017), there are a total of 602 known multiplanetary systems, or stars with at least two confirmed planets. About 280 of these have only two confirmed exoplanets, but some have a significantly larger number.

The star with the most confirmed planets is our sun with eight (after the demotion of Pluto), while the stars with the most confirmed exoplanets are Kepler-90, HD 10180 and HR 8832, with 7 confirmed planets each.  In 2012, two more exoplanet candidates were proposed but not yet confirmed for HD 10180, which would bring the total to 9 exoplanets in that system.

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Counting Our Countless Worlds

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The Milky Way has several hundred billion stars, and many scientists are now convinced it has even more planets and moons. (NASA)
The Milky Way is home to several hundred billion stars, and many scientists are now convinced it has even more planets and moons. (NASA)

Imagine counting all the people who have ever lived on Earth, well over 100 billion of them.

Then imagine counting all the planets now orbiting stars in our Milky Way galaxy , and in particular the ones that are roughly speaking Earth-sized. Not so big that the planet turns into a gas giant, and not so small that it has trouble holding onto an atmosphere.

In the wake of the explosion of discoveries about distant planets and their suns in the last two decades, we can fairly conclude that one number is substantially larger than the other.

Yes, there are many, many billions more planets in our one galaxy than people who have set foot on Earth in all human history. And yes, there are expected to be more planets in distant habitable zones as there are people alive today, a number upwards of 7 billion.

This is for sure a comparison of apples and oranges. But it not only gives a sense of just how commonplace planets are in our galaxy (and no doubt beyond), but also that the population of potentially habitable planets is enormous, too.   “Many Worlds,” indeed.

The populations of exoplanets identified so far, plotted according to the radius of the planet and how many days it takes to orbit. The circles in yellow represent planets found by Kepler, light blue by using ground-based radial velocity, and pink for transiting planets not found by Kepler, and green, purple and red other ground-based methods. (NASA Ames Research Center)
The populations of exoplanets identified so far, plotted according to the radius of the planet and how many days it takes to orbit. The circles in yellow represent planets found by Kepler, light blue by using ground-based radial velocity, and pink for transiting planets not found by Kepler, and green, purple and red other ground-based methods. (NASA Ames Research Center)

It was Ruslan Belikov, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley who provided this sense of scale.  The numbers are of great importance to him because he (and others) will be making recommendations about future NASA exoplanet-finding and characterization missions based on the most precise population numbers that NASA and the exoplanet community can provide.

Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist for the Kepler Space Telescope mission and the person responsible for assessing the planet population out there, sliced it another way. When I asked her if her team and others now expect each star to have a planet orbiting it, she replied: “At least one.”

Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet to be found within the habitable zone -- the region around the host star where the temperature is right for liquid water. This planet is also very close in size to Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)
Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet to be found within the habitable zone — the region around the host star where the temperature is right for liquid water. This planet is also very close in size to Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

I caught up with Belikov, Batalha and several dozen others intimately involved in cataloguing the vast menagerie of exoplanets at a “Hack Event” earlier this month at Ames. The goal of the three-day gathering was to find ways to improve the already high level of reliability and completeness regarding planets identified by Kepler.

It also provided an opportunity to learn more about how, exactly, these scientists can be so confident about the very large numbers of exoplanets and habitable zone exoplanets they describe. After all, the total number of confirmed exoplanets is a bit under 2,000 – a majority found by Kepler but hundreds of others by pioneering astronomers using ground-based telescopes and very different techniques. Kepler has another 3,000 planet candidates that scientists are in the process of analyzing and most likely confirming, but still. Four thousand is minuscule compared with two hundred billion.

Not everyone completely agrees that we’re ready to estimate such large numbers of exoplanets—suggesting that we need more data before making such important estimates — but the community consensus is that their extrapolations from current data are solid and scientific. And here is why:

The Kepler telescope looks out at a very small portion of the sky with a limited number of stars – about 190,000 of them during its four year survey. And it identifies planets based on the tiny dimming of stars when an object (almost always a planet) crosses between the star and the telescope.

The Kepler telescope looked constantly for four years at almost 200,000 stars in the Cygnus constellation. (Carter Roberts)
The Kepler telescope looked constantly for four years at almost 200,000 stars in the Cygnus & Lyra constellations.  Its lens is always open, by design. (Carter Roberts)

By identifying those 4,000-plus confirmed and candidate planets over four years, Kepler infers the existence of many, many more. As Batalha explained, a transit of the planet is only observable when the orbit is aligned with the telescope, and the probability of that alignment is very small. Kepler scientists refer to this as a “bias” in their observations, and it is one that can be quantified. For example, the probability that an Earth-Sun twin will be aligned in a transiting geometry is just 0.5%. For every one that Kepler detects, there are 200 others that didn’t transit simply because of the orientation of their orbits.

Then there’s the question of faintness and reliability. Kepler is looking out at stars hundreds, sometimes thousands of light years away.  The more distant a star, the fainter it is and the more difficult it is to gather measurements of –and especially dips in — brightness. When it comes to potentially habitable, Earth-sized planets, Batalha said that only 10,000 to 15,000 of the stars observed are bright enough for planets to be detectable even if they do transit the disk of their host star.

Here’s why: Detecting an Earth-sized planet would be roughly equivalent to capturing the image of a gnat as it crosses a car headlight shining one mile away. For a Jupiter-size planet, the bug would grow to only the size of a large beetle.

Add this bias to the earlier one, and you can see how the numbers swell so quickly. And since Kepler’s mission has been to provide a survey of planets in one small region – and not a census – this kind of statistical extrapolation is precisely what the mission is supposed to do.

There are numerous other detecting challenges posed by the dynamics of exoplanets, stars and the great distances. But then there are also innumerable challenges associated with the workings of the 95 megapixel CCD array that is collecting light for Kepler.   “Sensitivity dropouts” caused by those cosmic rays, horizontal “rolling bands” on the CCDs caused by temperature changes in the electronics, “optical ghosts” from binary stars that create false signals of transits on nearby stars — they are some of the many instrument artifacts that can be mistaken as a drop in light coming from a planet. Kepler’s data processing pipeline, much of which has been transferred over to the NASA Ames supercomputer, has the job of sorting all this out.

 

After the CCDs on the Kepler telescope record the light from stars in its viewing field, the data is sent back to Earth and goes through numerous steps before possibly delivering a “Kepler object of interest,” and possibly a planet candidate. Pleiades is the Ames supercomputer. (NASA Ames)
After the CCDs on the Kepler telescope record the light from stars in its viewing field, the data is sent back to Earth and goes through numerous steps before possibly delivering a “Kepler object of interest,” and possibly a planet candidate. Pleiades is the Ames supercomputer. (NASA Ames)

Adding to the challenge, said Jon Jenkins, a Kepler co-investigator at Ames and the science lead for the pipeline development, is that the stars viewed by Kepler turned out to be themselves “noisier” than expected. Stars naturally vary in their overall brightness, and the data processing pipeline had to be upgraded to account for that changeability.  But that stellar noise has played a key role in keeping Kepler from seeing some of the small planet transits that the team hoped to detect.

What the Hack event and other parallel efforts are doing is finding ways to, as Jenkins put it, “dig into the noise…to move towards the hairy edge of what our data can show.” The final goal: “To come up with the newest, best washer we can to clean the data and come out with an improved catalog of sparkling planets.”

All the data that will come from the primary Kepler mission, which came to a halt in the summer of 2013, has been collected and analyzed already on a first round. But now the entire pipeline of data is going to be reprocessed with its many improvements so the researchers can dig deeper into data trove. Batalha said they hope to find planets – especially Earth-sized planets – this way.

One of the key techniques to measure the performance of Kepler’s analysis pipeline is to inject fake transit signals into the data and see if it picks up their presence. As Batalha explained, this provides another way to gauge the biases in the system, its efficiency at detecting the planets that it could and should see. “If we inject 100 fake things into the pipeline and find 90 of them, that’s means we’re 90 percent complete.” She said the number would then be worked into the calculations of how many planets are out there, and how many of certain sizes will be caught and missed.

Natalie Batalha is the Chief Scientist for the Kepler mission, while announcing the discovery of Kepler’s first rocky planet, Kepler-10b, in January 2011.

So the Hack Event, which brought together astrophysicists, planetary scientists and computer hakers, was designed to come up with ways to improve Kepler’s completeness (seeing everything there to be seen) and reliability (the likelihood that the signal comes from a planet and not an instrument artifact or non-planetary phenomena in space). By computing both the completeness and reliability, scientists are confident that they can eliminate the observation biases and transform the discovery catalog into a directory of actual planets.

This is one of the key accomplishments of the Kepler mission – making it scientifically possible to say that there are billions and billions of planets out there. What’s more, the increased power of Kepler allowed for the discovery of smaller planets, which are now known to make up the bulk of the exoplanets. And while the number of Earth-sized planets detected in that habitable zone is small – around thirty – that’s still quite a remarkable feat. And remember, Kepler is looking at but one small sliver of the sky.

The twelve exoplanets detected so far closest to Earth in size, lined up with the type of stars they orbit. (NASA Ames)
The twelve exoplanets detected and confirmed so far closest to Earth in size, lined up with the type of stars they orbit. (NASA Ames)

Why does it matter how many exoplanets are out there, how many are rocky and Earth-sized, and how many within habitable zones? The last twenty years of exoplanet hunting, after all, has made clear that there are an essentially infinite number of them in the universe, and untold billions in our galaxy.

The answer lies in the insatiable human desire to know more about the world writ large, and how and why different stars have very different solar systems. But more immediately, there’s the need to know how to best design and operate future planet-finding missions. If the goal is to learn how to characterize exoplanets – identify components of their atmospheres, learn about their weather, their surfaces and maybe their cores – then scientists and engineers need to know a lot more about where planets generally, and some specifically, can be found. And those planet demographics just might open some surprising possibilities.

For instance, Belikov and his Ames colleague Eduardo Bendek have proposed a NASA “small explorer” (under $175 million) mission to launch a 30-to-45 centimeter mirror designed to look for Earth-sized planets only at our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. That’s as small a telescope as you can buy off-the-shelf.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System at about 4.37 lightyears away. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System at about 4.37 lightyears away. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

Alpha Centauri is a two-star system, and until recently researchers doubted that binaries like it would have orbiting planets. But Kepler and other planet hunters have found that planets are relatively common around binaries, making Alpha Centauri a better target than earlier imagined.

To make it a truly viable project, ACESat – the Alpha Centauri Exoplanet Satellite – requires something else: a scientifically sound estimate of the likelihood that any star in our galaxy would have an Earth-sized planet in its system. Estimates so far have ranged from 10 percent to 50 percent, but Belikov said newer data is encouraging.

“If that number becomes more firm and approaches 50 percent, then an Alpha Centauri-only mission makes a great deal of sense,” he said. “For a small investment, we could have a real possibility of detecting a planet very close by.”

Intriguing, and an insight into how new space missions are designed based on the science already completed. Both NASA and the European Space Agency have plans to launch three significant exoplanet missions within the decade, and the powerful James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2018 with some known and undoubtedly some not yet understood capabilities for exoplanet discovery. And perhaps most important, NASA is about to study how a potential mission in the 2030s could be designed with the specific purpose of directly imaging exoplanets – the gold standard for the field. All are being designed based on current exoplanet understandings, including the abundance calculations enabled by the Kepler mission’s observations.

Almost 2,000 exoplanets have now been identified, more than half by Kepler. Another 3,000 exoplanet candidates await confirmation. (NASA Ames)
Almost 2,000 exoplanets have now been detected and confirmed, more than half by Kepler. Another 3,000 exoplanet candidates await confirmation. (NASA Ames)

Future posts will dig deeper into a fair number of the subjects raised here, but for now this much is clear: Our galaxy has many billions of planets, and the process of detecting them is robust and on-going, the process of characterizing them has begun, and all the signs point towards the presence of enormous numbers of planets in habitable zones that, in the biggest picture at least, could possibly support life.

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