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.