A Dwarf Star Produces a Major Discovery

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his artist's illustration depicts an imagined view from the surface of one of the three newfound TRAPPIST-1 alien planets. The planets have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth, making them the best targets yet for life beyond our solar system, scientists say. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
An imagined view from the surface of one of the three newfound TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets. The planets have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth, making them attractive scientific targets in the search for potentially habitable planets beyond our solar system.
(ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The detection of potentially habitable exoplanets is not the big news it once was — there have been so many identified already that the novelty has faded a bit.  But that hardly means surprising and potentially breakthrough discoveries aren’t being made.  They are, and one of them was just announced Monday.

This is how the European Southern Observatory, which hosts the telescope used to make the discoveries, introduced them:

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory have discovered three planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star.

A team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon, of the Institut d’Astrophysique et Géophysique at the University of Liège in Belgium, have used the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope to observe the star, now known as TRAPPIST-1. They found that this dim and cool star faded slightly at regular intervals, indicating that several objects were passing between the star and the Earth. Detailed analysis showed that three planets with similar sizes to the Earth were present.

The discovery has much going for it — the relative closeness of the star system, the rocky nature of the planets, that they might be in habitable zones.  But of special importance is that the host star is so physically small and puts out a sufficiently small amount of radiation that the planets — which orbit the star in only days — could potentially be habitable even though they’re so close.  The luminosity (or power) of Trappist-1 is but 0.05 percent of what’s put out by our sun.

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.

“This really is a paradigm shift with regards to the planet population and the path towards finding life in the universe,” study co-author Emmanuël Jehin, an astronomer at the University of Liège, said in a statement. “So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets!”

Our sun and the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 to scale. The faint star has only 11% of the diameter of the sun and is much redder in colour. (ESO)
Our sun and the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 to scale. The faint star has only 11% of the diameter of the sun and is much redder in colour. (ESO)

The TRAPPIST-1 star is very faint and was identified because a Belgian team built a telescope especially to look for stars, and exoplanets, like the ones they found.  TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is tiny by today’s standards, but collects light at infrared wavelengths and that makes it well designed for the task.

The observations began only in September, 2015, and targeted a dwarf star well known to astronomers.  TRAPPIST spends much of its time monitoring the light from around 60 of the nearest ultracool dwarf stars and brown dwarfs (“stars” which are not quite massive enough to initiate sustained nuclear fusion in their cores), looking for evidence of planetary transits.

Because the star and planets are so relatively close, they offer an unusual opportunity to potentially characterize the atmospheres of the planets and determine what molecules are in the air.  These measurements are essential to learning whether a planet is indeed habitable (or even inhabited.)

TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is a 60 cm telescope at La Silla devoted to the study of planetary systems and it follows two approaches: the detection and characterisation of exoplanets around other stars and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. 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 is mostly funded by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research with the participation of the Swiss National Science Foundation. The name TRAPPIST was given to the telescope to underline the Belgian origin of the project. Trappist beers are famous all around the world and most of them are Belgian.
TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is a 60 cm telescope at La Silla devoted to the study of planetary systems and it follows two approaches: the detection and characterisation of exoplanets around other stars and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. 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 is mostly funded by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research with the participation of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Co-author Julien de Wit, a postdoc in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, said scientists will soon be able to study the planets’ atmospheric compositions quite soon.

“These planets are so close, and their star so small, we can study their atmosphere and composition, and further down the road, which is within our generation, assess if they are actually inhabited,” de Wit said. “All of these things are achievable, and within reach now. This is a jackpot for the field.”

Rory Barnes, a specialist in dwarf stars and their exoplanets at the University of Washington, agreed that the TRAPPIST-1 discovery was  both intriguing today and inviting of a lot more future study.  Indeed, he said that efforts to characterize exoplanet atmospheres will most likely focus for the next decade on the smaller stars in our galactic neighborhood — the ubiquitous M dwarfs.

“It’s just easier to find exoplanets around smaller stars because they block out a great percentage of the star’s light when they transit,” he said. “And with small stars, the planets are usually closer in, which also makes them easier to find.”

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 barriers 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. “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).”

Barnes also focused on the stellar evolution, which he said is always complex and pertinent when talking about dwarf stars and exoplanets.  A small dwarf star like TRAPPIST-1 — which the authors estimate is 500 million years old — would have spent a much longer time as a much hotter protostar, sending out intense heat from its formation process before it achieved fusion.  That means a planet in the star’s habitable zone now may well have been baked like Venus eons ago, Barnes said, and there is no known way to become habitable after that.

So the relatively benign conditions around TRAPPIST-1 now in terms of radiation and heat clearly have not always been present.

The study authors said — and other scientists agree — that the most likely planet in the system to be actually habitable is the one furthest out.  But the orbit of that third planet has not been well defined, as seen in the estimate that it orbits its star within somewhere between 4.5 and 73 days.

As it turns out, the follow-on Kepler mission (K2) will be observing in the area that includes TRAPPIST-1 from this coming December through March 2017.

Kepler Mission Scientist Natalie Batalha said that she hoped the team put in a proposal to observe TRAPPIST-1.  If they did, she said, the proposal will be peer reviewed this month and could be among those selected. Assuming the telescope is in good working order and operations continue to be funded come December, K2 observations could better define that third planet’s orbit.

The Trappist-1 system is at the edge of the field that will be observed starting in December. The graphic shows detector that Campaign 12 detector field. (NASA/ Natalie Batalha)
The TRAPPIST-1 system lies within the field that is planned for Campaign 12 starting in December. The graphic shows its predicted location at the edge of one of Kepler’s detectors. (NASA/ Natalie Batalha)

But whatever happens with K2, TRAPPIST-1 is now an astronomical “star” and will no doubt be getting scientific attention of all kinds.

 

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On Super-Earths, Sub-Neptunes and Some Lessons They Teach

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Part 2 of 2

The Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and our solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury. The size of the habitable zone of star Kepler-452, considered one of the most “Earth-like” exoplanets found so far, is nearly the same as that of our sun. “Super-Earth” Kepler-452b orbits its star once every 385 days. (NASA Ames/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt)
The Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and our solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury. The size of the habitable zone of star Kepler-452, considered one of the most “Earth-like” exoplanets found so far, is nearly the same as that of our sun. “Super-Earth” Kepler-452b orbits its star once every 385 days. (NASA Ames/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt)

 

With such a large proportion of identified exoplanets in the super-Earth to sub-Neptune class, an inescapable question arises: how conducive might they be to the origin and maintenance of life?

So little is actually know about the characteristics of these planets that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune (which has a radius four times greater than our planet) that few are willing to offer a strong opinion.

Nonetheless, there are some seemingly good reasons to be optimistic, about the smaller super-Earths in particular. And there are some seemingly good reasons to be pessimistic –many appear to be covered in a thick layer of hydrogen and helium gas, with a layer of sooty smog on top, and that does not sound like an hospitable environment at all.

But if twenty years of exoplanet hunting has produced any undeniable truth, it is that surprising discoveries are a constant and overturned theories the norm. As described in Tuesday’s post, it was only several years ago that results from the Kepler Space Telescope alerted scientists to the widespread presence of these super-Earths and sub-Neptunes, so the fluidity of the field is hardly surprising.

One well-respected researcher who is bullish on super-Earth biology is Harvard University astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov. He argues that the logic of physics tells us that the “sweet spot” for planetary habitability is planets from the size of Earth to those perhaps as large as 1.4 Earth radii. Earth, he says, is actually small for a planet with life, and planets with a 1.2 Earth radii would probably be ideal.

I will return to his intriguing analysis, but first will catalog a bit of what scientists have detected or observed so far about super-Earths and sub-Neptunes. As a reminder, here’s the chart of Kepler exoplanet candidate and confirmed planets that orbit G, K and M main sequence stars put together by Mission Scientist for the Kepler Space Telescope Kepler Natalie Batalha.

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Kepler exoplanets candidates, both confirmed and unconfirmed, orbiting G, K, and M type main sequence stars, by radii and fraction of the total. (Natalie Batalha and Wendy Stenzel, NASA Ames)

Expanding a bit:

  • While very large exoplanets were the first to be found because of the kind of instruments and techniques used in the search, the consensus view now is that small planets are much more plentiful. Future instruments will doubtless reveal a vast collection of exoplanets in the Earth-radius ballpark and smaller, but super-Earths and sub-Neptunes may well still dominate.
  • There’s a growing body of evidence that when planets are larger than roughly 1.5 Earth radii, they will likely be surrounded by a hyrogen and helium envelope dating back to the formation of the planet. The pull of the larger planets keeps the gases intact and often will render the planet essentially inert.
  • Roughly 70 percent of the main sequence stars in the galaxy are in the M dwarf category, smaller and less powerful stars that are known to have many exoplanets. Often they orbit close in to their sun and are packed together in a tight habitable zone. But many M dwarf planets in their habitable zones are like our moon – tidally locked so one side always faces the sun. Whether or not that rules them out in terms of habitability is now a hotly debated topic.

It’s quite amazing what has been learned about super-Earths, but compared to our knowledge of our solar system planets, we know very, very little. And what, after enormous effort, imagination and cost we do know? Generally speaking, gross measurements of mass, size, orbit period and density. They can tell scientists a lot about super-Earths and larger exoplanets, such as whether they are rocky, gaseous, and the mixtures in between. But characterizing them – and ultimately determining if they are at all capable of supporting life — really requires at a minimum that ability to measure what elements and compounds are in its atmosphere.

There are techniques for doing this: When an exoplanet passes in front of its star, the chemical make-up of the planet’s atmosphere can be analyzed by looking at how light either passes through or is absorbed by molecules, providing a telltale spectral reading of its contents.

trans_spec
Probing potassium in the atmosphere of HD 80606b with tunable filter transit spectrophotometry from the Gran Telescopio Canarias (European Space Observatory.)

Caroline Morley, of Jonathan Fortney’s group at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is one of those working to understand those measurements. But so far, the larger super-Earth and sub-Neptune planets are not cooperating.

“No spectral features are coming through, and so we’re limited in our characterizing,” Morley said. “This is a fundamental problem.” The spectral blanks, she and others are convinced, are the result of either thick clouds (probably made up of salts like zinc sulfide and potassium chloride) or a sooty hydrocarbon smog surrounding the planets. They keep the necessary stellar light from passing through in a way that would allow the presence of an enriched atmosphere, if present, to be identified and analyzed.

Like Morley, Robert Charnay and Victoria Meadows of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington have been working to understand the opaque nature of the sub-Neptune planet Gliese 1214b in particular. They used a 3D circulation model to determine that salt clouds, which would form at lower altitudes, could nonetheless rise to the upper atmosphere and block any spectral readings.

These obstacles to analyzing the atmospheres of super-Earths were an initial surprise and have been a major frustration in the field. The James Webb Space Telescope may be able to peer through the clouds via detection of thermal emissions, so the 2018 arrival of the successor to the Hubble is eagerly awaited.

Caroline Morey of the University of California, Santa Cruz
Caroline Morey of the University of California, Santa Cruz (Jennifer Burt)

Based on what astronomers, planetary scientists, astrophysicists and others have been able to learn so far about the super-Earths to sub-Neptunes, the picture for potential habitability does not appear particularly bright. But there are other ways to assess that informal class of planets and come up with very different conclusions.

Dimitar Sasselov looks at astronomical problems from a more theoretical perspective, though he was a co-investigator for the Kepler telescope too. As Sasselov sees it, the basic physics of super-Earths, especially the smaller ones, actually favor life. The reason why is that it favors stability.

“There is no particular reason why a bigger planet might not be habitable,” he said. “When planets go bigger they get more stable, though certainly other problems will can and will arise. But when looking at some of the super-Earths, I contend they are as good for life as Earth, if not better.”

The additional stability comes in various forms. First is a less variable slant to the spin axis – its obliquity. Planets can get into trouble when that slant is highly changeable, as Sasselov says, pointing to Mars as an example. The planet’s steep and sometimes chaotic changes in the angle of its spin are believed to have caused dramatic climate changes.

Then there is the greater gravity that comes with a more massive planet. That increased gravity can have the effect of keeping an atmosphere from evaporating, a process that, among other things, exposes the planet to the charged particles coming from a parent star.

Dimitar Sallelov, professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative
Dimitar Sasselov, professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative (NASA)

And there is the increased likelihood of some kind of recycling of material from the planet surface back into the mantle, where it gets chemically enriched. Plate tectonics allows for that kind of chemical redistribution on Earth, but smaller planets are not known to have parallel processes.

With a more stable atmosphere and planetary slant, “the geochemistry of a planet has plenty of time to leap to biochemistry, and then to adapt,” he said. “Life is rooted in geochemistry and has to play by the rules of chemistry and physics.   There are many aspects to stability, and all benefit from a planet being Earth-sized or larger.”

As for Earth itself, he sees our planet as being uncomfortably close to that low edge of what makes a planet not very stable – not especially habitable.

There are, of course, limits to finding habitable conditions on most large planets. Sasselov agrees that planets bigger than 1.5 earth radii or so will tend to keep their primordial envelope of hydrogen and helium, which can have the effect of freezing everything on the planet in place and making life impossible. They will also tend to be fully gaseous rather than rocky.

But there will always be outliers, he said, and he has spent a lot of time working on one of the – the “Mega-Earth” Kepler 10c. It is a huge super-Earth with a surprisingly high ratio of rock, orbiting its sun in 45 days and breaking all the rules – such as they are now – about planet formation.

An artist concept shows the Kepler-10 system, home to two rocky planets. In the foreground is Kepler-10c, a planet that weighs 17 times as much as Earth and is more than twice as large in size. This discovery has planet formation theorists challenged to explain how such a world could have formed. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)
An artist concept shows the Kepler-10 system, home to two rocky planets. In the foreground is Kepler-10c, a planet that weighs 17 times as much as Earth and is more than twice as large in size. This discovery has planet formation theorists challenged to explain how such a world could have formed. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)

“We were very surprised to discover it,” said Sasselov, who was part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics team that first detected and analyzed it. “It was so large, so close to its sun, and much more massive than we would have predicted.”

It is a very hot planet and so not at all habitable, but it is a clear reminder that nature has ways of producing results that don’t appear at all plausible.

Sasselov said those anomalies may have to do with planet migration – that a large and gaseous Kepler 10c moved from the outer solar system into the close environs of its sun, and then lost some or all of its gas envelope from the heat and other solar activity. But the however it evolved – and since the system is more than 10 billion years old, it had a lot of time to evolve – it ended up a planet with 2.2 Earth radii with no apparent gas barriers around it and close to its sun. That, says Sasselov, makes it perfect to study with spectroscopy.

When NASA announced the huge mass of the planet in 2014, Kepler mission Batalha said: “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, nature gives you a huge surprise—in this case, literally.”

 

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