I have updated my popular exoplanet graphic (which got to 1 million views in 2015) to 2017. And made it far prettier, I’m sure you’ll agree. As before, the x-axis shows orbital period (which can also be thought of as “distance from star”), the y-axis shows planet mass, and the colour shows how the plants were found.
(Click the image for a more high-resolution version, and feel free to use it in any way you see fit.)
And, as a bonus for finding this page (I wont be publicising this anywhere): this is what the future of exoplanet detection (probably) looks like:
This includes estimates of exoplanet hauls from new ground-based detections such as transits, RVs & direct imaging, and the space missions TESS, Gaia, PLATO, WFIRST; all capable of finding tens of thousands of planets.
After a week of controversy and embargo-breaking, the actual science behind the detection of Proxima Centauri b is finally here (published in Nature). And it, honestly, is a breathtaking discovery. A terrestrial planet around the closest star to our sun. It proves what Kepler showed: Earth-like planets really are everywhere, including around the star next door. But should we believe it? And is it all that it is hyped up to be?
As you can probably tell from the name, Proxima is the closest star to Earth. Located only 4 lightyears away in the Alpha Centauri system, it is a tiny red speck of light, only visible in a telescope. The reason for it’s lackluster brightness is that the star itself is dimunative. Only 12% of the size of the Sun, it is also 100 million times fainter. Although that may sound bizarre, M-dwarfs like it are the most common type of star in our galaxy.
Many people have hunted for planets around Proxima before. These usually involve monitoring the star’s radial velocity, it’s to-and-fro speed, and searching for the tell-tale tug of a gravitationally bound exoplanet. But until 2016, there had been no luck. That’s when the Pale Red Dot team decided to throw everything they could at the star to try to do what others had not.
Using the HARPS instrument on La Silla (which I am currently sat only 50m from), they took observations nearly every night for 3 months. And, as we found out yesterday, that kitchen-sink technique paid off. They found a 1.5m/s (that’s brisk walking pace) with an 11.2 day signal. And it had a 99.9999% chance of being real. And they found the same signal, hidden just below detectability in the past data too.
Activity and detection:
When the rumours were flying, I urged caution on this potential discovery. One of the reasons being that Proxima is not a quiet sun-like star. It is instead a turbulent M-dwarf. That manifests itself in large star-spots, strong stellar flares and varying shapes in the spectral lines (the bar-code like lines we observe in the colours of the star). All of these cause confusion in the radial velocities, and there have been a few planets (some of which were discovered by this very team) which are now assumed to be simply variability.
But, they have convinced me. One way they have done this is with simultaneous photometry. That means not just observing the star with a spectrograph, but also simultaneously measuring its brightness with an imaging telescope. This photometry also gives a view of the activity of the star, but without any of the doppler signal from the planet. And what the team see is that the photometry (the trends in brightness) matches up perfectly with the activity that is suggested by certain features in the spectra. And that this signal is completely different to that from the planet.
So, I have to say it: it seems unlikely that the strong signal comes from the star itself, and much more likely that we are indeed seeing the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet.
Firstly, we only have a minimum mass for the planet. What this means is that, it could not be less than 1.3Me, but it certainly could be more. That is because the signal from a small planet with its orbit observed edge-on has the same signal as a larger planet observed more obliquely (pole-on). So do not be surprised if it turns out to be larger than this first measurement
M-dwarfs and habitability:
Another caveat is that the planet probably isn’t habitable. I know that flies in the face of every news headline, but hear me out. Firstly, as I’ve said before, Proxima Centauri throws out an abundance of flares. These are so numerous and so strong that they are clearly seen four times in the ~80 nights of photometry. With a planet only 0.05AU away (1/20th the distance of Earth), these flares would have the potential to do damage to any organic molecules on the surface. The paper itself suggests the sterilising X-ray flux could be 400 times that experienced by Earth; and are likely to have been much higher in the past.
Another problem is that any body that close to another, larger body is likely to be tidally locked. Just look at the moon. This proves problematic for habitability. The large temperature gradient from day to night a tidally locked planet sucks the atmosphere (with supersonic winds) to the cold side of the planet. There, atmosphere can gets frozen and be lost. You can break this cycle, but that involves having a very thick (and equally un-earthlike) atmosphere.
One interesting remark was that there seems to be another signal in the data from a more massive outer planet. Now, this signal might be closer to the rotational (and therefore activity) cycle of the star so could more easily be a false positive. But it would not be surprising if, like our own terrestrial planet, it had bigger siblings lurking slightly further out.
As with any exoplanet result, it seems like everything besides a few key details is speculation ( I have even seen some press speculating on the number of continents proxima has!). In fact, details such as its true mass aren’t completely tied down just yet. And even 1.3Me planets can still be un-earthlike; look at KOI-314c for example.
But, unlike most of the ‘earthlike’ planets we have found, there’s a pretty good chance we could actually answer these questions directly. And I don’t just mean with giant telescopes (although those would obviously work too) – I mean actual in situ observations. Crossing 4 lightyears of space currently no more than a pipe-dream, but it’s not inconceivable to think that, within our lifetimes, a probe might set off to see just how earthlike these exoplanets really are. And there’s no question where it will be going first; towards a Pale Red Dot…
How do planets form? Can they migrate through their solar system? What are they made of? What can modify a planet over time? Is Earth, or our solar system, special?
These are all questions that those in our field seek to answer. And there seems, to me at least, to be an easy way of figuring them out: Find More Planets.
As last week’s news of 1200 new planets showed, the Kepler spacecraft is an excellent way of doing that. Even in it’s new and slightly more limited mode of “K2”, nearly 200 planet candidates and at least 50 bona fide planets have so far been detected.
I am involved in a collaboration between 7 European universities to search for and confirm planets in K2. So far this has resulted in half a dozen papers & planets including the 2-planet K2-19 system. Today I can add one more to that tally: EPIC212521166 b (or 1166 for short).
Finding and Confirming EPIC-1166 b
Initially, we searched the 28,000 stars observed by K2 in field 6; scouring the lightcurves with computer programmes and by eye to spot the repeated dips that might be the tiny signals of planets passing in front of their stars. A handful of candidates including 1166* stood out as promising targets, and we took those few stars to the next stage: radial velocities.
Using the high-resolution spectrograph HARPS, we searched for the star’s to-and-fro motion that orbiting planets should create. In the case of 1166, we saw a strong signal on the same timescale as we expected from the transits.
Then, using a code called “PASTIS”, we modelled the radial velocities, the transit lightcurve and information about the star it orbits simultaneously to pin down exactly what 1166 could be. Almost unquestionably, it was a planet, which was a relief. But we can also tell the size of this planet: it has a radius of only 2.6±0.1 times that of Earth, but a mass a whopping 18±3 times our planet. Combined they give EPIC-1166 b a mass similar to Neptune but a radius more than 30% smaller.
Super-Earth or mini-Neptune?
This makes 1166 b a member of an interesting group of planets: between the size of our solar system’s largest terrestrial planet (Earth) and it’s smallest gas giant (Neptune). So which one of these does our planet most closely resemble?
From it’s density (5.7g/cm3), EPIC-1166b might seem to be closer to Earth than the puffy Neptune (1.64g/cm3). However, densities are misleading for objects so large. The high pressures in the interior of an 18 earth-mass (Me) planet are enough to crush rock and iron to much higher densities than their terrestrial values. This effect is so large that, for a 2.6Re planet to have earth-like composition (70% rock, 30% iron), it would need to be around 50 earth masses! That’s a density nearly three times higher than Earth’s, and clear evidence that 1166 b is not quite as Earthlike as first impressions.
Instead, it seems like our planet must contain something other than just rock and iron. The most obvious candidate is hydrogen gas. This is so light and fluffy that at atmosphere consisting of only 1% the mass of 1166 b (0.2Me) is enough to cover an 18Me earth-like core in a 0.4Re-deep atmosphere, and produce the mass and radius that we see. Alternatively, water could be another component that could drag the density down. For example, if 1166 b was 50% water and 50% rock, it could also explain the composition perfectly. However, this scenario is unlikely, and a hydrogen-dominated atmosphere seems to be the more likely option.
Getting a handle on the interior composition of a planet is interesting, but in EPIC-1166 b’s case it is especially perplexing. Planet formation models show that, once a planet grows to around 10Me, it should begin to rapidly draw in gas from the surrounding gas disc until it becomes a gas giant like Jupiter. In the case of 1166 b, we also have reason to think it likely migrated inwards to its current position through that very gas disc. This is because it is not close enough for tides to affect its position, and orbits in a circular (rather than eccentric) orbit; both pointers to disc migration.
So how did it avoid becoming a gas Giant? One way might be if EPIC-1166 b was a gas giant, but lost all its atmosphere due to UV and X-Rays emitted from its star. However, at 0.1AU and with a surface temperature of 600K (much less than many exoplanets), 1166 b is too far away to have been affected by activity.
My favourite way of solving this puzzle (and it is pure speculation) is through giant impacts between planets. This could both grow a large planet at 0.1AU after the initial planet formation stage, and also blast away a large hydrogen atmosphere. The fact that the star is much older than the Sun (8±3 Gyr) and that we do not see any other planets in the system, further adds to the possibility that this was once a multiplanet system (like K2-19b and c), which destabilised, crashed together, and resulted in a single dense mini-Neptune.
The jury is still out on it’s precise formation. But with EPIC-1166 b orbiting a bright star, there is hope that we can re-observe the planet and tie down it’s size, composition and history even further. And, together with the diverse and growing crop of exoplanets, this new mini-Neptune will surely help to answer those important open questions in our field.
And if that fails we can always fall back on the exoplanet mantra: Find More Planets.
The paper was submitted to A&A and released onto arXiv (http://arxiv.org/abs/1605.04291) on May 13th 2016.
The number of worlds discovered around other stars is now counted in the thousands. But, if you were to go out on a dark night and try to spot those planet-hosting stars with your own eyes, you would struggle – only 6% of planets orbit stars bright enough for our eyes to pick out. This is especially true of transiting planets; those that pass in front of their star relative to our line of sight. Of more than 1000 such planets known, only one (55 Cancri) is bright enough to see in the night sky. That is, until today…
HD 219134, nestled between Cassiopeia and Cephus, is remarkable in so many ways. It was first studied with HARPS-N, during it’s Rocky Planet Search. This instrument, a spectrograph on the TNG telescope in the Canary Islands, is able to measure the motion of stars so precisely that it can spot the to-and-fro wobble caused by planets.
Amazingly, this instrument found not just one but four planets around this star; a mini solar system just like our own. The outermost is a gas giant on a 3-year orbit, while the inner three are between the size of Earth and Neptune orbiting once every 3, 7 and 47 days.
At this point, astronomers had no idea if these new worlds transited. But a planet on a 3-day orbit has pretty good odds to pass in front of its star so, taking control of the Spitzer space telescope, they pointed it and hoped. And sure enough, exactly when predicted, the innermost planet blocked out 0.036% of starlight. This fraction is just the surface area of the star covered up, giving a precise measure of the radius of the planet.
Now, with the mass of the planet measured by HARPS and the radius of the planet measured by Spitzer, it’s density can be found. While many similar sized worlds have turned out to be fluffy gas-balls rather than true super-Earths, a density of 5.89gcm-3 puts HD 219134b bang on Earth-like composition. If there was a surface, it’s gravity would be just under twice what we experience on Earth (18.8ms-3). With an orbit of only three days, though, the planet’s star-facing surface is likely to be hot enough to melt!
At only 20 light years away, the newly-discovered solar system around HD219134 is also the closest transiting exoplanet ever found, and one of the 20 closest bright star systems to our Sun. With transiting planets extremely rare, there’s even a chance that this could actually be the closest transiting planet around a bright star (K & G-type).
HD219134’s brightness is also important for astronomers. The brighter & closer a planet, the more interesting ways we can study it. For example, this new world has jumped to the top of the list for those trying to study exoplanet atmospheres. We can also measure the path it takes as it crosses it’s star to determine just how the planet orbits. The outer 3 planets might peturb the orbits of the inner one, causing detectable variations in transit timing (TTVs).
It has truly been a remarkable week for exoplanet astronomy, beginning with the discovery of habitable-zone super-Earth Kepler-452b, and now the detection of the brightest, closest, awesomest transiting planet ever found. And, thanks to a huge array of exciting follow-up options, this will not be the last you’ve heard of HD219134b,
Here’s how you can find the star in the sky (and a very neat animation of the transit):
A new analysis of Kapetyn’s Star by Paul Robertson at Penn State University suggests that Kapetyn b, the innermost and most Earth-like of two planets detected in 2013, is not a planet but rather an artefact of sunspots on the star’s surface.
The two planets were detected by Anglada-Escude using the radial velocity technique. This involves tracing the spectrum of the star, the light from which is imprinted with a barcode of absorption lines, to detect minute changes in the velocity of the star. The team used this to spot the to-and-fro (Doppler) motion of the star due to gravitational pull of two unseen planets.
This also allowed Anglada-Escude to place the innermost planet in the Habitable or “Goldilocks Zone”, the region around the star where temperatures might be just right for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.
But planets are not the only thing that can influence a star’s spectra – Robertson’s reanalysis of the spectra found tracers for starspot activity which varied on a 143 day period. This caused an artefact signal at 143/3 days, or 48 days: precisely the supposed orbital period of Kapetyn b.
This latest result is the third skirmish in a bitter war between the two teams with three habitable-zone planets detected by Anglada-Escude all now refuted by Robertson.
On March 20th this year, the moon will pass between Earth and the Sun sending a slither of Northern Europe into darkness. For those in the UK, this partial eclipse will be the most impressive eclipse until three minutes of totality at 4:56pm on September 23rd, 2090. Calculating something so far ahead seems like an impressive feat but in fact astronomers can precisely work out exactly when and where eclipses will occur for not just the next hundred, but the next million years. Such is the way for most transiting exoplanets too, the calculations for which could probably be valid in thousands of years.
But a new planetary system, discovered by a team that includes Warwick astronomers (including me), doesn’t yet play by these rules. It consists of two planets orbiting their star, a late K star smaller than our sun, in periods of 7.9 and 11.9 days. The pair have radii 7- and 4-larger than Earth, putting them both between the sizes of Uranus and Saturn. They are the 4th and 5th planets to be confirmed in data from K2, the rejuvenated Kepler mission that monitors tens of thousands of stars looking for exoplanetary transits. (36 other planet candidates, including KIC201505350b & c, have been released previously).
But it is their orbits, rather than planetary characteristics, that have astronomers most excited. “The periods are almost exactly in a ratio of 1.5” explains Dave Armstrong, lead author of the study. This can be seen directly in how the star’s brightness changes over time. This lightcurve appears to have three dips of different depths, marked here by green, red and purple dips. ”Once every three orbits of the inner planet and two orbits of the outer planet, they transit at the same time”, causing the deep purple transits.
But this doesn’t just make for an interesting lightcurve; the closeness of these periods to a 3/2 ratio also causes other weird effects. “The planets perturb each other and change their period every orbit, so they never quite transit when you expect”, explains Arms. These shifts are called Transit Timing Variations (or TTVs).
The size of these TTVs is related to the mass of the planets, and some previous multi-planet systems have been weighed in this way. When the team went back to observe the larger planet less than 9 months later, they found that the transit time had shifted by more than an hour. And their period ratio of 1.5035 means the resulting TTVs are likely to continue increasing over a few years, potentially shifting the system more than a day from it’s current rhythm.
These TTVs also help prove that the planets are real. Their presence means that both objects are interacting with each other, so the planets must orbit the same star rather than being, say, two different background binaries. The team also used these shifts in transit time to constrain the planet masses, showing them to be less than 1.2 and 2.04 times that of Jupiter.
Not only is this one of the most interesting multi-planet systems yet discovered by Kepler, it is also one of the brightest (12th magnitude), making ground-based follow-up much easier than many Kepler systems. Most interestingly, precise spectrographs like HARPS and SOPHIE will be able to measure the tiny to-and-fro shift in the star’s velocity caused by the gravitation pull of planet on the star. This radial velocity would give a precise mass for the planets in the system and for the first time allow masses found by TTVs to be directly compared to those from RVs.
Examples of 3:2 resonance can be found everywhere in planetary science, including between Pluto & Neptune’s orbits, in the Kirkwood gap of the Asteroid Belt, and even between the planets around pulsar PSR1257+12. It is also thought that Jupiter and Saturn may have, at one point, become caught in a 3:2 resonance as they migrated inwards. This scenario, of planets caught in 3:2 resonance migrating inwards, could explain how these two sub-Jupiter sized planets came to be in such an unusual orbit.
These two planets could also help settle other dilemmas. “We’d like to answer questions like ‘Did they form there?’, ‘Did they migrate there and get stuck?’ and ‘will they eventually get ejected from the system, or crash into the star?’” suggests Armstrong. The best way to do this is simply by watching future transits and monitoring just how in-sync the planets really are. And maybe one day we could even begin to predict their eclipses as confidently as we can with those happening here on Earth.
The paper, submitted to A&A, can be found on ArXiV here. My work on the paper involved developing the tools to find the transiting planets in the K2 lightcurve.
If, in 2009, you asked 18-year-old me to name an exoplanet, then Gliese 581d would have been it. Discovered by an American team of astronomers in 2007, it was, for a long time, the poster child for exoplanetary science. Not only was the first rocky world ever found in the habitable zone of its star where life-friendly temperatures are found, it was also relatively nearby (for astronomy standards) at only 20 light years.
Astronomers used the radial velocity technique to find the first planet around Gliese 581 as far back as 2005. This method relies on the gravitational pull that a planet has on a star as it orbits. This wobble is detectable in the spectra of the starlight, which gets doppler shifted as the star moves back-and-forth, allowing the period and mass of an orbiting planet to be determined. While the first planet, ‘b’, orbited close to the star with a period of only 5.4 days, it was joined by two cooler (and more habitable) planets, ‘c’ and ‘d’ in 2007. This was soon followed in 2009 by Gliese 581e, the smallest planet in the system on an even shorter (3.1d) orbit.
Things started to get even more confusing in 2010 when observers at the Keck observatory announced two more planets (‘f’ and ‘g’) orbiting at 433 and 37 days respectively. This would put ‘g’ between ‘c’ and ‘d’ and right in the middle of the star’s habitable zone. However, new observations of the star with a Swiss telescope showed no such signal. Was there a problem with the data, or could something else be mimicking these planets?
One problem comes when we consider the star itself. Just like our own sun, most stars are active, with starspots skimming across the surface and convection currents in the photosphere causing noise in our measurements. These active regions can often mimic a planet, suppressing the light from one side of the rotating star and shifting the spectra as if the star itself were moving back-and-forth. Add to that the fact that, like planets, activity comes and goes on regular timescales and that cool stars such as Gliese 581 are even more dynamic than our pot-marked sun, and the problem becomes apparent.
The first planet to bite the interstellar dust was ‘f’. At 433 days, its orbit closely matches an alias of the star’s 4.5-year activity cycle, and it was quickly retracted in 2010. Similar analyses with more data also suggested Gliese 581g was also likely to be an imposter, but the original team stuck by this discovery. For the last 3 years, this controversy has simmered, until last month all the data available for Glises-581 was re-analysed by Paul Robertson at Penn State. This showed that not only is Gliese 581g not a planet, but that the poster child itself, Gliese 581d, was also an imposter.
To do this, the team took all 239 spectra of GJ581 and analysed not just the apparent shift in velocity, but the atomic absorption lines themselves. Using the strength of the Hα absorption line as an indicator for the star’s activity, they compared this to the residual radial velocity (after removing the signal from planet b). This showed that there was a relatively strong correlation between activity and RV, especially over three observing seasons when the star was in a more active phase. They also found that this activity indicator varied on a 130 day timescale.
When the team removed the signal from stellar activity, they found that planets ‘c’ and ‘e’ were even more obvious than in previous searches. However the signal for planet ‘d’ dropped by more than 60%, way below the threshold needed to confirm a planet. Even more remarkably, ‘g’ does not appear at all. So what exactly caused this ghostly signal. The planet’s orbital period of 66 days gives us a clue -it is almost exactly half that of the star’s 130 day rotation cycle, so with a few fleeting starspots and the right orientation, a strong planet-like signal at 66 days results.
This case of mistaken identity is a sad one, but thanks to the incredible progress of our field in the last 5 years, their loss barely makes a dent in the number of potentially habitable exoplanets known. Instead, it acts as a warning for planet-hunters: sometimes not all that glitters is gold.
For 3 months a year, the TNG telescope on the island of La Palma turns its high-precision spectrometer (HARPS-N) towards the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra. This is the field of view that NASA’s Kepler space telescope stared at for more than 3 years, detecting thousands of potential new exoplanets using the transit method. There the TNG scans hundreds of Kepler’s potentially planet-holding stars looking for tiny changes in their radial velocity. If detected, this signal will indicate the presence of a real planet, confirming once and for all what Kepler first hinted at many months before. This is the process that, up until now, has been used to definitively find the majority of Kepler’s 211 planets.
That appeared to change in the blink of an eye this week with the confirmation of 715 new planets using a new catch-all statistical technique. But how did the Kepler team confirm all these new worlds, and can they really be considered real planets?
Without further observations with instruments such as HARPS, Kepler’s 3000 planetary candidates cannot usually be called definite planets. This is because a number of other signals could mimic the transit signal of a star, including tightly bound double-stars that graze one other as they orbit, or unseen dim stars that have binary companions. Alternatively the cameras themselves could be acting up, producing periodic, transit-like signals in the data. Last year a team used simulations of the Kepler data to estimate that around 10% of the candidates were likely to be such false positives.
So how can more than 700 worlds be confirmed at once, without any manual work from telescopes on the ground? The answer is through performing statistics on Kepler’s planets. Of a zoo of 190,000 stars observed, Kepler discovered 3000 potential planets, of which 10% are likely to be spurious signals. As a rough estimate then (and the Kepler team go into much more effort than this), the random probability of finding a false positive is 300/190,000, or a rate of only 0.16%.
That number on its own cannot help confirm planets. The trick comes when thinking about Kepler’s hundreds of multiple planet systems. The likelihood of a single-planet system randomly having another false positive also in the data is extremely low. In fact, applying that rough number to the 1000 best single-planet candidates tells us only around 2 of those multiplanet systems should have a spurious planet. Similar calculations can be done for even rarer systems with two false positives, two planets and a false positive, etc.
This rate can also be significantly improved by excluding any targets more likely to give these spurious signals. For example, the authors removed more than 350 potential planets from the initial sample for many reasons. Some had instrumental artefacts seen in other stars or had transits close to the limit of detection. Others with V-shaped transits were eliminated as these are more likely to be grazing binary stars. The team also studied the images Kepler took to check for possible transits on a secondary star, eliminating anything where the transit did not in the star’s central position.
Using these cuts, the study narrowed down the search to 851 planets around 340 stars. Applying statistics and using the estimate that 10% of currently detected planets might be false positives, the team found that 849 of the 851 planets were likely to be planets. This corresponds to a certainty of 99.8%, just greater than 3σ, which in astronomy is usually enough to constitute a detection. This is how “verification by multiplicity” works.
Of these, 715 are previously un-confirmed worlds. Nearly all are relatively small planets, with radii going from the same as Earth up to that of Neptune. Four of these new planets may also reside in their star’s habitable zone, the region where liquid water could exist on the surface.
As amazing as it would be to nearly double the number of exoplanets overnight, some doubts remain about this method. By eliminating astronomical follow-ups, no extra information can be gleaned. For example, without performing radial velocity measurements, the mass of these planets will never be known. And without other accurate astronomical studies, we cannot accurately determine the nature of the star, and therefore the radius of the planet.
The main difference, though, comes from the impersonal nature of verification by multiplicity. Previous confirmation methods assessed the probability of each candidate being a planet individually. By performing the confirmation in bulk we will know, thanks to the statistics, that at least 2 planets are imposters*. But if exoplanet astronomers can learn to live with that doubt, such planets may well be accepted as confirmed worlds and this simple idea will see the single biggest influx of validated exoplanets in history.
* Here’s another way to compare those statements. Imagine you have two pills. One produces a 0.2% chance of death. The other causes the loss of two fingers (0.2% body mass). By adding these planets to the list of exoplanets, we may well gain a whole new body of worlds, but there will be painful amputations to come in the future.
UPDATE: The new planets are proving reasonably contentious. The exoplanet counter on NASA’s planetquest sits at 1690 , wheras the Paris-based exoplanet.eu remains on 1078. Time will tell whether astronomers accept these as true planets or simply string candidates.
As readers of my previous post will no doubt know; the future looks grim for exoplanetary science. Kepler is dead, Hubble will soon follow and we face a long wait before the next generation of planet-hunting instruments. But this week, exoplanet astronomers glimpsed another ray of hope. The next £500million of European Space Agency money looks likely to go to PLATO; an incredible exoplanet-hunting mission set to be even better than Kepler.
With an array of 34 telescopes mounted on a sun-shield, PLATO hopes to do things a little differently from both Kepler and TESS. Like those missions, it too will monitor thousands of stars looking for the minute dip in light caused by the passage of a planet in front of its parent star. However, it is in both breadth and depth that PLATO excels; with the combined light of dozens of cameras allowing 5% of the sky to be monitored to incredible accuracy at any one time.
More than a million stars could be scrutinised for Earth-sized planets by Plato, giving an expected planet haul an order of magnitude higher than Kepler. Plato will also not be tied down into staring at the same stars, instead monitoring 50% of the sky on eight 30-day positions and two longer 3-year fields. This will allow dozens of Earth-like planets with potentially habitable temperatures to be discovered.
The main criticism of the now-defunct Kepler mission was the faintness of these stars (between magnitude 7 and 17). This meant the vast majority of its planetary candidates were impossible to follow up and confirm. The wide field and large array of cameras on Plato allow the brightest stars to be monitored (mag 4-16). That will mean even tiny Earth-sized worlds found by Plato can be followed up and confirmed by ground-based telescopes.
This ability to survey bright stars also allows astronomers to perform extremely sensitive measurements of the stars themselves. By using variations in starlight caused by ripples on the star’s surface, astronomers can accurately pin down not only the size of the star but also the age of the star system. This means, not only can Plato find exoplanets around bright stars, but it can also determine the size and age of many of these planets to a precision only previously dreamed of.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), to launch in 2017, seems superficially to be a similar mission to Plato. It will potentially discover hundreds of planets before Plato even gets off the ground in 2024. However, the limited sensitivity of its cameras mean it is completely blind to Earth-like worlds around sun-like stars. Astroseismology is also off-limits for TESS, meaning the size of any worlds it does discover will be highly uncertain. Unlike Plato, it will also move between patches of sky every 30 days, allowing only hot, short-period planets to be found.
With all other new telescopes, both in space and on the ground, limited to finding super-Earths around small stars, Plato is the only mission on the table truly capable of discovering an Earth-like world around a star like our Sun. And by targeting bright stars that allow atmospheric follow-up, it is not impossible to think that, as well as the first truly habitable planet, Plato could find the first inhabited one too.
However, the decision process for ESA’s Cosmic vision (M3 class) is still ongoing. It would be highly unusual for ESA member states to overturn the mission recommended by the science committee, but in the political cauldron that is ESA anything is possible. If Plato does get through unscathed, it will bring riches not just to the universities, countries and industries involved, but more significantly to the world of science as a whole.
The paper detailing mission design and expected science results can be found at: http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.0696 . The official ESA mission page has similar information at: http://sci.esa.int/plato/
In the 1890s Percival Lovell pointed the huge, 24-inch Alvan Clark telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona towards the planet Mars. Ever the romantic, he longed to find some sign of life on the Red Planet: To hold a mirror up to the empty sky above and find a planet that looked a little bit like home. Of course, in Lovell’s case, it was the telescope itself that gave the impression of life, imposing faint lines onto the image that he mistook for canals. But, with Mars long since relegated to the status of a dusty, hostile world, that ideal of finding such a planet still lingers. In the great loneliness of space, our species yearns to find a world like our own, maybe even a world that some other lineage of life might call home.
A hundred years after Lovell’s wayward romanticism, the real search for Earth-like planets began. A team of astronomers at the University of Geneva used precise spectroscopy to discover a Jupiter-sized world around the star 55-Peg. This was followed by a series of similar worlds; all distinctly alien with huge gas giants orbiting perishingly close to their stars. However, as techniques improved and more time & money was invested on exoplanet astronomy, that initial trickle of new worlds soon turned into a flood. By 2008 more than 300 planets had been discovered including many multi-planet systems and a handful of potentially rocky planets around low-mass stars. However, the ultimate goal of finding Earth-like planets still seemed an impossible dream.
In 2009 the phenomenally sensitive Kepler mission launched. Here was a mission that might finally discover Earth-sized planets around Sun-like stars, detecting the faint dip in light as they passed between their star and us. Four years, 3500 planetary candidates and 200 confirmed planets later, the mission was universally declared a success. Its remarkable achievements include a handful of new terrestrial worlds, such as Kepler-61b and 62e, orbiting safely within their star’s habitable zones. However, despite lots of column inches and speculation, are these planets really the Earth 2.0s we were sold?
Even more damning is the size of these planets. Rather than being truly Earth-like, the crop of currently known ‘Habitable planets’ are all super-Earths. In the case of Kepler’s goldilocks worlds, this means they have radii between 1.6 and 2.3 times that of Earth. That may not sound too bad, but the mass of each planet scales with the volume. That means, when compression due to gravity is taken into account, for such planets to be rocky they would need masses between 8 and 30 times that of Earth. With 10ME often used as the likely limit of terrestrial planets, can we really call such planets Earth-like. In fact, a recent study of super-Earths put the maximum theoretical radius for a rocky planet as between 1.5 and 1.8RE, with most worlds above this size likely being more like Mini-Neptunes.
So it appears our crop of habitable super-Earths may not be as life-friendly as previously thought. But it is true that deep in Kepler’s 3500 candidates a true Earth-like planet may lurk. However the majority of Kepler’s candidates orbit distant, dim stars. This means the hope of confirming these worlds by other techniques, especially tiny exo-Earths, is increasingly unlikely. And with Kepler’s primary mission now ended by a technical fault, an obvious question arises: just when and how will we find a true Earth analogue?
Future exoplanet missions may well be numerous, but are they cut out to discover a true Earth-like planet? The recently launched Gaia spacecraft, for example, will discover hundreds of Gas Giants orbiting Sun-like stars using the astrometry technique, but it would need to be around a hundred times more sensitive to discover Earths. New ground-based transit surveys such as NGTS are set to be an order of magnitude better than previous such surveys, but still these will only be able to find super-Earth or Neptune-sized worlds.
Similarly, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite which is due to be launched in 2017, will only be able to find short-period planets with radii more than 50% larger than Earth. HARPS, the most prolific exoplanet-hunting instrument to date, is also due for an upgrade by 2017. Its protégée is a spectrometer named ESPRESSO that will be able to measure the change in velocity of a star down to a mere 10cms-1. Even this ridiculous level of accuracy is not sufficient to detect the 8cms-1 effect Earth’s mass has on the Sun.
While such worlds may well have surfaces with beautifully Earth-like temperatures, there are a number of problems with calling such worlds definitive Earth twins. For a start the majority of these potentially habitable planets (such as Kepler-62e) orbit low-mass M and late K-type stars. These are dimmer and redder than our Sun and, due to the relative distance of the habitable zone, such planets are likely to be tidally locked. The nature of such stars also makes them significantly more active, producing more atmosphere-stripping UV radiation. This means, despite appearances, ‘habitable’ planets around M-dwarfs are almost certainly less conducive to life than more sun-like stars.
So despite billions spent on the next generation of planet-finders, they all fall short of finding that elusive second Earth. What, precisely, will it take to find this particular Holy Grail? There is some hope that the E-ELT (European-Extremely Large Telescope), with its 35m of collecting area and world-beating instruments will be able to detect exo-earths. Not only will its radial velocity measurements likely be sensitive enough to find such planets, it may also be able to directly image earth-analogues around the nearest stars. However, with observing time likely to be at a premium, the long-duration observations required to find and study exo-earths could prove difficult.
Alternatively, large space telescopes could be the answer. JWST will be able to do innovative exoplanet research including taking direct images of long-period planets and accurate atmospheric spectra of transiting super-Earths and giants. Even more remarkably, it may manage to take spectra of habitable zone super-Earths such as GJ 581d. But direct detection of true Earth-analogues remains out of reach. An even more ambitious project may be required, such as TPF or Darwin. These were a pair of proposals that could have directly imaged nearby stars to discover Earth-like planets. However, with both projects long since shelved by their respective space agencies, the future doesn’t look so bright for Earth-hunting telescopes.
After the unabashed confidence of the Kepler era, the idea that no Earth-like planet discovery is on the horizon may come as a surprisingly pessimistic conclusion. However not all hope is lost. The pace of technological advancement is quickening. Instruments such as TESS, Espresso, E-ELT and JWST are already being built. These missions may not be perfectly designed to the technical challenge of discovering truly Earth-like planets, but they will get us closer than ever before. As a civilisation we have waited hundreds of years for such a discovery; I’m sure we can hold out for a few more.