Friday, April 18, 2014

Kepler-186f: An Earth-Sized Planet in the Habitable Zone

“In space there are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours.”
- Giordano Bruno, 1584

In recent years, many planets have been found within the habitable zone - the region around a star where the temperatures are just right for a planet to sustain liquid water on its surface. By analysing data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, a team of astronomers have announced the discovery of the most Earth-like planet yet detected. Kepler is a planet-hunting telescope that measures subtle changes in the brightness of stars to see if an orbiting planet is crossing in front of a star. This newfound planet, dubbed Kepler-186f, is the first confirmed Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star. “This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and lead author of the paper published on April 17 in the journal Science.

Figure 1: Artist’s depiction of Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-sized planet to orbit in the habitable zone of another star. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

Before the announcement of Kepler-186f, the smallest habitable zone planets known are all somewhat larger than the Earth, placing them in the super-Earth-sized rather than Earth-sized regime. Although these planets are still potentially habitable, their environments are likely to be quite different compared to the Earth. Examples of these habitable zone super-Earths include Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Kepler-22b. Furthermore, Kepler has also detected a number of planets the size of Earth or smaller around other stars. However, these planets all orbit too close to their host stars and are therefore too hot to be habitable. Examples of these close-in planets include Kepler-20e, Kepler-20f, Kepler-78b and Kepler-37c. Unlike these planets which are either ‘at the right distance but too large’ or ‘at the right size but too close’, Kepler-186f is the first confirmed planet that has both the right size and the right distance.

Kepler-186f is part of a planetary system with 4 other known planets. The 4 companion planets, Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d and Kepler-186e, circle around their host star every 3.89, 7.27, 13.3 and 22.4 days. All 4 planets orbit much closer-in than Kepler-186f and are therefore too hot to be habitable. These 4 planets range in size from 1.07 to 1.40 Earth-radius and were confirmed using the first 2 years of data collected by Kepler, while Kepler-186f, the fifth planet, required an additional year of data.

Kepler-186f measures only 10 percent larger than Earth (1.11 ± 0.14 Earth-radius), making it a truly Earth-sized planet. Its host star is a red dwarf star about half the size of Earth’s Sun and located about 500 light years from Earth. Kepler-186f orbits within the habitable zone of its host star - the “Goldilocks” zone that is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist if Kepler-186f has an Earth-like atmosphere. Being a red dwarf star, the host star of Kepler-186f is cooler and dimmer than the Sun. It means that the habitable zone around the host star of Kepler-186f is located much closer-in compared to the habitable zone around the Sun.

Figure 2: The diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to the planetary system hosting Kepler-186f. The parent star of Kepler-186f is a red dwarf star with half the size and mass of the Sun. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

 Figure 3: The 5 planets of the Kepler-186 planetary system compared to the inner planets of our solar system. Image credit: NASA.

Kepler-186f circles its host star in the habitable zone once every 130 days. The orbit of Kepler-186f around its host star is actually slightly smaller than the orbit of Mercury around the Sun in our own solar system. Kepler-186f’s orbit places it near the cooler, outer edge of the habitable zone. Despite receiving only 32 percent of the intensity of stellar radiation that Earth receives from the Sun, Kepler-186f is in fact comfortably within the habitable zone. This is because light from a red dwarf star is “redder” than light from stars like the Sun and it changes how an Earth-like planet would interact with the star’s light.

Compared to the Sun, whose dominant form of radiation is in the visible wavelength, red dwarf stars are cooler and a larger proportion of their energy output is in the form of infrared radiation. For Earth-like planets around red dwarf stars, infrared radiation is absorbed by ice instead of being reflected. Additionally, water vapour and carbon dioxide also absorb and trap infrared radiation. These characteristics make Kepler-186f more efficient at absorbing energy from its host star to avoid freezing over. As a result, Kepler-186f is still considered habitable even though it receives less light from its host star than Mars receives from the Sun.

Figure 4: Position of Kepler-186f within the habitable zone, show in comparison with a number of other known planets. Image credit: NASA/Chester Harman.

Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass is not known since data from Kepler is unable to yield such measurements. In spite of this, Kepler-186f is small enough for its composition and mass to be well constrained using existing planetary models. These models predict that planets smaller than 1.5 times the size of Earth are unlikely to be dominated by hydrogen-helium gas envelopes like Jupiter or Neptune in our own solar system. Mass estimates for Kepler-186f range from 0.32 Earth-mass for a pure water/ice composition to 3.77 Earth-mass for a pure iron composition. The composition of Kepler-186f is highly unlikely to be anywhere close to these two extremes. Instead, Kepler-186f probably lies somewhere in the middle, most likely with a rocky composition similar to Earth. For an Earth-like composition, Kepler-186f would have a mass of 1.44 Earth-mass.

Red dwarf stars, like the host star of Kepler-186f, are by far the most common type of star in the galaxy. Such stars make up over 80 percent of the closest stars to the Sun. They are less massive, smaller, cooler and dimmer than the Sun, and they range in size from around 10 to 50 percent the size of the Sun. Besides being the most abundant type of stars, red dwarfs stars are good targets in the search for transiting habitable Earth-sized planets. This is because a red dwarf star is smaller than a Sun-like star, so an Earth-sized planet around a red dwarf star would have a larger planet-to-star size ratio. As a consequence, an Earth-sized planet transiting a red dwarf star would create a deeper transit than if the same planet were to transit a larger Sun-like star. Deeper transits are easier to detect than shallower ones.

Figure 5: Diagram showing the deeper transit depth of an Earth-sized planet transiting a red dwarf star. Image credit: NASA.

Furthermore, transiting planets in the habitable zone of red dwarf stars would undergo more frequent transits than those in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars. This is because the habitable zone of red dwarf stars is much closer-in, resulting in shorter orbital periods than those around Sun-like stars. Given the abundance of red dwarf stars, planets such as Kepler-186f are almost certainly the most abundant type of habitable planet. Unfortunately, Kepler-186f itself is just too far away for even future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to determine its composition and atmosphere. Nevertheless, TESS and JWST will be able to detect and characterize Earth-sized planets around the nearest stars. Most of these planets would be around red dwarf stars, much like Kepler-186f.

The discovery of Kepler-186f supports the emerging view that Earth may not be such a unique place, and that the galaxy is home to billions and billions of habitable worlds. “The discovery of Kepler-186f is a significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will discover the nearest rocky exoplanets and determine their composition and atmospheric conditions, continuing humankind’s quest to find truly Earth-like worlds.”

Reference:
Elisa V. Quintana et al., “An Earth-Sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star”, Science 17 April 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6181 pp. 277-280.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

An Isolated Dwarf Galaxy GHOSTS I

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, A. Monachesi et al. (2013) report the discovery of a faint dwarf galaxy, GHOSTS I. Based on observations of some of the stars in that galaxy, the estimated distance of GHOSTS I is ~40 million light years. GHOSTS I appears to be a very isolated dwarf galaxy as there are no large galaxies anywhere within ~13 million lights years from it. Also, the process of star-formation seems to be evident within GHOSTS I, resulting in it being tentatively classified as a dwarf irregular (dIrr) galaxy. Nevertheless, more observations are probably needed for a more confident classification.

The Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf irregular galaxy located only 200,000 light years from the Milky Way. Credit: Stéphane Guisard.

In general, most dwarf galaxies that are far from large galaxies tend to be dIrr galaxies, while those closer to large host galaxies tend to be dwarf spheroidal (dSph) galaxies. There is a dichotomy between dIrr and dSph galaxies - dIrr galaxies have ongoing star-formation, while dSph galaxies do not. It is believed that tidal and ram pressure effects from large host galaxies probably transformed many star-forming dIrr galaxies into non-star-forming dSph galaxies. Work by Slater & Bell (2013) show that even a single close passage by a large galaxy can extinguish star-formation, transforming a dIrr galaxy to a dSph galaxy.

GHOSTS I is tens of thousands of times fainter than a large galaxy like the Milky Way or Andromeda. Together with just a few other dwarf galaxies such as Leo T and Leo P, GHOSTS I is one of the faintest and least-massive star-forming dwarf galaxies known. Future observations of GHOSTS I can reveal how such tiny galaxies can retain gas and form stars.

References:
- A. Monachesi et al. (2013), “GHOSTS I: A New Faint very Isolated Dwarf Galaxy at D = 12 +/- 2 Mpc”, arXiv:1312.0602 [astro-ph.GA]
- Slater & Bell (2013), “Confronting Models of Dwarf Galaxy Quenching with Observations of the Local Group”, arXiv:1306.1829 [astro-ph.CO]

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Origin of the Equatorial Ridge on Iapetus

Iapetus is the 3rd largest moon around Saturn and like many of Saturn's moons; it is locked in synchronous rotation where the same hemisphere faces Saturn all the time. A striking two-tone colouration exists over the leading and trailing hemispheres of Iapetus. The leading hemisphere and sides are dark (albedo 0.03 - 0.05), while most of the trailing hemisphere and poles are bright (albedo 0.5 - 0.6). This two-tone colouration has a pattern analogous to a spherical yin-yang symbol.

Figure 1: A mosaic showing an entire hemisphere of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Iapetus has a remarkable equatorial ridge system extending over 110 degrees in longitude. Parts of the ridge have peaks that rise up to 20 km above the surrounding landscape, making these mountains amongst the highest in the Solar System. The prominent equatorial ridge system gives Iapetus an overall walnut-like appearance. A number of endogenic (i.e. processes such as tectonism or volcanism arising from the interior of Iapetus) and exogenic (i.e. processes such as debris in-fall that originate from beyond the surface of Iapetus) mechanisms have been proposed to explain the origin of the equatorial ridge system.

A recent study by Lopez Garcia et al. (2014) suggests an exogenic formation mechanism for the equatorial ridge on Iapetus. Using a total of 506 topographic profiles of the ridge system obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, a topographic analysis was performed where 6 types of ridge morphologies were identified - triangular (33% of profiles), trapezoidal (21% of profiles), crowned (8% of profiles), twinned (14% of profiles), dissimilar (7% of profiles) and saddle (17% of profiles). The triangular peaks form the most common morphology and have the steepest slopes, with some slopes reaching ~40 degrees. Also, the triangular peaks are probably the least impact-modified ridge morphology on Iapetus.

Figure 2: Representative examples of the six ridge morphological types observed in the topographic profiles. Vertical exaggeration ~10 times. Source: Lopez Garcia et al. (2014).

As proposed by Ip (2006), an exogenic origin for the ridge system would most probably occur via debris in-fall, whereby the ridge is the remains of an early ring system that collapsed onto the equator of Iapetus. Depending on the material, the resulting ridge would have slopes with angles close to the angle of repose. For rounded icy grains, the angle of repose is ~25 degrees; and for snow mixed with particles of hail, the angle of repose is ~45 degrees. Indeed, as shown in this study, the presence of slope angles close to the angle of repose favours an exogenic origin for the equatorial ridge on Iapetus.

References:
- Lopez Garcia et al. (2014), “Topographic Constraints on the Origin of the Equatorial Ridge on Iapetus”, arXiv:1404.2337 [astro-ph.EP]
- Ip (2006), “On a ring origin of the equatorial ridge of Iapetus”, Geophysical Research Letters 33, L16203.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Influence of Hot Jupiters on their Host Stars

A star’s magnetic activity allows it to extend its influence far beyond its surface. The Sun’s magnetic field extends billions of kilometres into space, far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Phenomena such as stellar flares and coronal mass ejections are magnetically induced processes that can profoundly influence the atmospheres of close-in exoplanets. It is well established that the magnetic activity of a star depends on its rate of rotation. A star’s rotation gradually slows as angular momentum is carried away by the stellar wind. As a result, the magnetic activity of stars like the Sun decreases over billions of years.


Nevertheless, stars hosting hot-Jupiters (i.e. massive planets in close-in orbits) can maintain fast rotation rates and hence high magnetic activity. In a study by K. Poppenhaeger and S.J. Wolk (2014), 5 binary star systems with widely-spaced stars (over 100 AU apart) were observed in X-rays. For each binary system, one star is known to host a close-in massive planet, while the other star does not have a detected planet and acts as a negative control. Using X-ray emission as an observational proxy for stellar magnetic activity, the stars in each binary system were observed with Chandra and XMM-Newton.

The 5 binary star systems involved in the study are HD189733 AB, CoRoT-2 AB, Tau Boötis AB, Upsilon Andromedae AB and 55 Cancri AB. For 2 of the systems - HD189733 AB and CoRoT-2 AB, where the strongest tidal interaction is expected between planet and host star, the X-ray emission of the planet-hosting star is stronger than expected when compared to the companion star. It implies that when compared to its companion star, the planet-hosting star is over-rotating.

This study shows that hot-Jupiters may inhibit the spin-down of their host stars. 2 possible mechanisms can drive this process. One involves the transfer of angular momentum from the planet’s orbit to the star’s rotation through tidal interaction, spinning-up the star as a result. The second mechanism involves the hot-Jupiter opening a gap in the protoplanetary disk during the early evolution of the star, resulting in a weaker star-disk coupling and causing a smaller rate of spin-down.

Reference:
K. Poppenhaeger and S.J. Wolk (2014), “Indications for an influence of Hot Jupiters on the rotation and activity of their host stars”, arXiv:1404.1073 [astro-ph.SR]

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Supermassive Stars around Supermassive Black Holes

Quasars are the most energetic and luminous objects known in the universe. These objects are powered by supermassive black holes (SMBH) accreting matter at prodigious rates in the centres of massive galaxies. SMBHs have masses ranging from ~100 million to billions of times the Sun’s mass. Due to the high accretion rates, the accretion disk surrounding a SMBH that is powering a quasar contains a tremendous amount of mass. A number of studies have proposed that exotic supermassive stars may form in such an accretion disk, somewhat like how planets form in protoplanetary disks around young stars.

This artist’s impression shows how ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, may have looked. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Beyond a few hundred to a few thousand Schwarzschild radii from the central SMBH, a quasar’s accretion disk becomes self-gravitating. The term “Schwarzschild radius”, is a unit of measurement, where a value of one Schwarzschild radius is the distance from a black hole where the escape speed would equal the speed of light. A self-gravitating accretion disk can fragment into gravitationally bound clumps and form very massive stars with masses easily exceeding a few hundred solar mass. The term “supermassive” is truly justified here since such stars can attain masses of perhaps ~10,000 solar mass, making them far more massive than the most massive stars currently known.

Once a supermassive star forms, it can clear a gap in the quasar’s accretion disk and start migrating towards the central SMBH. The migration time to the SMBH is comparable to the supermassive star’s main sequence lifetime. During this time, the supermassive star can interrupt the flow of gas to the SMBH and temporary dim the quasar. The final merger of the supermassive star, or what is left of it, with the central SMBH would be a strong source of low frequency gravitational waves.

Detecting the presence of a supermassive star may be tough. Although supermassive stars are very luminous, they would still be overwhelmed by the immense glare of the quasar. Nevertheless, the presence of a supermassive star around the SMBH of a quasar may reveal itself as periodic milli-magnitude amplitude modulations of the quasar’s light curve, with a period ranging from a few days to a few years. The physical conditions found in a quasar’s accretion disk are much more extreme than those in a conventional star-forming region, and this can favour the rapid formation of truly supermassive stars.

References:
- Jeremy Goodman and Jonathan C. Tan (2004), “Supermassive Stars in Quasar Disks”, arXiv:astro-ph/0307361
- Yanfei Jiang and Jeremy Goodman (2010), “Star Formation in Quasar Disk”, arXiv:1011.3541 [astro-ph.HE]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Enceladus’ Subsurface Ocean of Liquid Water

With a diameter of 500 km, Enceladus is a small icy moon of Saturn. Images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft show large plumes of water vapour and ice erupting from the south-polar region on Enceladus. The source of these plumes, or geysers, is believed to be an ocean of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ icy crust. Tidal interactions between Enceladus and Dione (another moon of Saturn) generate the heat necessary to keep this body of water in a liquid state. A study done in 2011 found that Enceladus’ south-polar region pumps out an estimated 15.8 gigawatts of endogenic heat. This amount of heat is sufficient to maintain an ocean of liquid water under a thermally conductive icy crust.

Figure 1: Saturn’s moon Enceladus, covered in snow and ice, resembles a perfectly packed snowball in this image from Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

From 2010 to 2012, Cassini performed 3 close flybys of Enceladus that allowed for ultra-precise radio tracking of the spacecraft from Earth using the giant ground antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network. For these close flybys, Cassini flew within 100 km of Enceladus’ surface, twice above the southern hemisphere and once over the northern hemisphere. During each flyby, the spacecraft’s velocity is perturbed by small but measurable amounts that depend on variations in the gravity field of Enceladus.

In a new study published in the April 4 issue of the journal Science, a team of researches used the Doppler data from the ultra-precise tracking measurements to map out Enceladus’ gravity field. “The way we deduce gravity variations is a concept in physics called the Doppler Effect, the same principle used with a speed-measuring radar gun,” said Sami Asmar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a co-author of the paper. “As the spacecraft flies by Enceladus, its velocity is perturbed by an amount that depends on variations in the gravity field that we’re trying to measure. We see the change in velocity as a change in radio frequency, received at our ground stations here all the way across the Solar System.”

What the team found is the presence of a negative mass anomaly at Enceladus’ south-polar region. A negative mass anomaly means the area contains less mass than would be expected for a perfectly spherical body. Although a negative mass anomaly makes sense since Enceladus’ south-polar region is depressed by a depth of ~1 km, the observed negative mass anomaly turned out to the significantly smaller than expected. As a result, there must be “extra” mass beneath the surface to account for the smaller than expected negative mass anomaly.

The team’s calculations suggest that the presence of a subsurface ocean of liquid water, which is 8 percent denser than the surrounding ice, is the only reasonable explanation. In the model, the ocean is ~10 km think and lies beneath a shell of ice 30 to 40 km thick. The ocean extends from the pole to roughly 50° south latitude and its thickness diminishes toward the lower southern latitudes. Nevertheless, the current data does not rule out the possibility of a global ocean. Furthermore, the ocean is believed to be in direct contact with a rocky seafloor.

Figure 2: Enceladus’s gravity disturbances mapped onto a reference ellipsoid. The negative mass anomaly at the south-polar region is clearly indicated. Credit: L. Iess et al. (2014).

Figure 3: This diagram illustrates the possible interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus based on a gravity investigation by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and NASA’s Deep Space Network, reported in April 2014. The gravity measurements suggest an icy outer shell and a low density, rocky core with a regional water ocean sandwiched in between at high southern latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

This study is the first time gravity measurements were used to infer the presence of an ocean on another world. Enceladus’ subsurface ocean is probably the source of its geysers. Along with water vapour and ice, these geysers also spill out organic molecules. In the Solar System, other worlds such as Europa and Ganymede also harbour subsurface oceans of liquid water. However, Enceladus and Europa are the only ones with subsurface oceans that are in direct contact with rocky seafloors, allowing their oceans to play host to a wide range of complex chemical reactions that are conducive for life, just as in Earth's oceans. This makes Enceladus and Europa amongst the best destinations in the Solar System to search for the presence of life.

Reference:
L. Iess et al., “The Gravity Field and Interior Structure of Enceladus”, Science 344, 78 (2014)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kepler-413b: A Circumbinary “Warm-Neptune”

Two years ago, the first transiting circumbinary planet, Kepler-16b, was discovered. Since then, several more circumbinary planets have been found. As the term suggests, a circumbinary planet is a planet that orbits two stars instead of one. Recently, Kostov et al. (2014) report the discovery of Kepler-413b - a Neptune-sized transiting circumbinary planet. Kepler-413b orbits a pair of stars, both of which are less massive and less luminous than the Sun. The two stars, one a spectral class K-type star and the other an M-type star, circle around each other every 10.1 days. Both stars form a K + M eclipsing binary system. Further out, Kepler-413b circles the pair every ~66 days on a somewhat eccentric orbit.

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of a possible view from the surface of a circumbinary planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Kepler-413b was discovered using data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope. The Kepler light curve data for Kepler-413b show a set of 3 transits separated by ~66 days, followed by ~800 days with no transits, followed by another set of 5 transits with each transit again ~66 days apart. There is a small misalignment of ~2.5° between the orbital planet of the K + M binary and the orbital plane of Kepler-413b around the binary. As a consequence, the orbit of Kepler-413b precesses, causing long periods with no transits. In fact, the next transit is not expected to occur until 2020. Due to orbital precession from the influence of the central binary and the planet’s own eccentric orbit, Kepler-413b is likely to experience complex seasonal cycles with interesting climate patterns.

The combined incident stellar flux from the K + M binary at the orbital location of Kepler-413b varies from a minimum of ~1.64 to a maximum of ~3.86 times the average flux Earth receives from the Sun. This places Kepler-413b within the inner edge of the habitable zone around its host stars, suggesting temperatures that are probably too warm for life. Nevertheless, if a planet is a dry desert planet, it can remain habitable at even closer distances in a region known as the dry desert habitable zone. Interestingly, Kepler-413b is in this zone for most of its orbit (Figure 4) and a dry terrestrial-sized moon around Kepler-413b would be on the verge of habitability.

Figure 2: Photodynamical fits (red) to the 8 observed (and a possible 9th, labelled as “A” near time 188.35) transits. Kostov et al. (2014)

Figure 3: Orbital configuration of Kepler-413b over the course of 1/8 precession period (1/8 of ~11 years). Kostov et al. (2014)

Figure 4: Orbital location of Kepler-413b (black line) as a function of the orbital phase of the planet and equilibrium temperature, assuming a planetary Bond albedo of 0.34. The inner (red line) and outer (blue line) edges of the habitable zone are indicated, and the dashed line indicates the inner edge of the dry desert habitable zone. The planet is in the dry desert habitable zone for most of its orbit. Kostov et al. (2014)

Reference:
Kostov et al. (2014), “Kepler-413b: a slightly misaligned, Neptune-size transiting circumbinary planet”, arXiv:1401.7275 [astro-ph.EP]

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Raining Molten Iron on Luhman 16B

Brown dwarfs are substellar objects that are more massive than planets, but not massive enough to sustain hydrogen fusion and shine as full-fledged stars. These objects start out hot, and cool gradually as they age. When cooled below a temperature of ~2300 K, it is believed that silicate minerals and molten iron begin to condense to form patchy cloud systems in the atmosphere. At cooler temperatures of below ~1300 K, these clouds disappear, probably sinking into the warmer and unobservable deeper layers of the atmosphere.

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of weather on a brown dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC).

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, I. Crossfield et al. (2014) have created the first ever global weather map of a brown dwarf named Luhman 16B. This object is a member of a pair of brown dwarfs known together as Luhman 16AB. As the name suggests, Luhman 16AB was discovered by Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennslyvania State University in March 2013 using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). At a distance of just 6.5 light-years away, Luhman 16AB are not only the two closest known brown dwarfs, they are also the third nearest system - only the Alpha Centauri system and Barnard’s star are closer.

Brown dwarfs are notoriously difficult to study due to their faintness and relatively small size. However, the close proximity of Luhman 16AB puts them within easy reach of VLT’s gaze. Although both brown dwarfs were observed in the same fashion, only Luhman 16B exhibits strong temporal variability of its thermal radiation. The observed variability is consistant with Luhman 16B’s rotation period of 4.9 hours. As the brown dwarf rotates, brighter and darker areas of its surface come in and out of view to produce the observed variability. The brighter regions are believed to represent upper cloud layers that obscure the deeper and hotter parts of the atmosphere. In contrast, the brighter regions are believed to be gaps in the upper cloud layers that allow the deeper and hotter layers of the atmosphere to be seen.

Figure 2: Surface map of brown dwarf Luhman 16B. The lightest and darkest regions shown correspond to brightness variations of roughly 10%. Credit: ESO/I. Crossfield.

Luhman 16B has an estimated temperature of ~1400 K, extremely inclement by any standard. The global cloud map of Luhman 16B hints at the complexity of weather patterns on brown dwarfs. Clouds on Luhman 16B are probably comprised of iron and silicate minerals in a largely hydrogen-helium atmosphere. Here, iron can precipitate from the clouds in showers comprising droplets of molten iron. Weather on Luhman 16B can truly be exotic.

“Previous observations have inferred that brown dwarfs have mottled surfaces, but now we can start to directly map them,” said Ian Crossfield of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, lead author of the study. “What we see is presumably patchy cloud cover, somewhat like we see on Jupiter. In the future, we will be able to watch cloud patterns form, evolve and dissipate - eventually, maybe exo-meteorologists will be able to predict whether a visitor to Luhman 16B can expect clear or cloudy skies,” added Crossfield.

Reference:
I. Crossfield et al., “A global cloud map of the nearest known brown dwarf”, Nature 505, 654-656 (30 January 2014)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Low Density Planets of Kepler-51

Kepler-51 is a fairly young star with an estimated age of ~300 million years and it is also slightly more luminous than the Sun. Observations of Kepler-51 by NASA’s Kepler space telescope found that it hosts three transiting planet candidates - Kepler-51 b, Kepler-51 c and KOI-620.02. The three planets have orbital periods of 45.2 days (Kepler-51 b), 85.3 days (Kepler-51 c) and 130.2 days (KOI-620.02), placing them close to a 1:2:3 resonance. By measuring the amount of light each planet blocks as it transits its host star, the size of each planet is found to be 7.1 (Kepler-51 b), 9.0 (Kepler-51 c) and 9.7 (KOI-620.02) times the Earth’s diameter.

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of a gaseous planet.

Figure 2: Phase-folded transit light curves of Kepler-51 b (top), Kepler-51 c (middle) and KOI-620.02 (bottom). Black dots are the observed fluxes and coloured solid lines show the best-fit models.

As the three planets circle their host star, they gravitationally perturb one another. This leads to transit timing variations (TTVs) where each planet transits the host star at slightly earlier or later timings, deviating somewhat from strictly periodic transit intervals. By studying the TTVs, Masuda (2014) derived the mass for each of the three planets to be 2.1 (Kepler-51 b), 4.0 (Kepler-51 c) and 7.6 (KOI-620.02) times the Earth’s mass. With the size and mass of each planet known, all three planets were found to have remarkably low densities of less than 5 percent the density of water, possibly the lowest densities yet determined for exoplanets. In comparison, the Earth has a mean bulk density of 5.52 times the density of water. With this finding, the Kepler-51 system serves as yet another example of a very low-density compact multi-transiting planetary system.

The planets around Kepler-51 have mean densities that are much lower than any of the planets in the solar system. To explain their “puffiness”, each planet probably possesses an extended outer hydrogen-helium envelop surrounding a denser core. Assuming the planetary system has an age of ~300 million years; calculations show that the observed radii of the Kepler-51 planets can be explained if they have about 10 percent (Kepler-51b), 30 percent (Kepler-51c) and 40 percent (KOI-620.02) of their masses in their hydrogen-helium envelopes. All three planets are unlikely to be habitable, at least for the type of life found on Earth, given that the planets have thick gaseous envelopes and equilibrium temperatures that exceed 100°C.

Reference:
Masuda (2014), “Very Low-Density Planets around Kepler-51 Revealed with Transit Timing Variations and an Anomaly Similar to a Planet-Planet Eclipse Event”, arXiv:1401.2885 [astro-ph.EP]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

At the Edge of Destruction

M. Gillon et al. (2014) report the discovery of WASP-103 b, an ultra-short-period planet at the edge of tidal disruption. WASP-103 b orbits an F-type star at a distance of just ~2 stellar radii from the star's surface, taking a mere 22.2 hours to complete an orbit. The WASP transit survey is sensitive to detecting ultra-short-period giant planets when these planets happen to cross in front of their host stars. WASP-103 b has 1.49 times the mass and 1.53 times the diameter of Jupiter. This newfound planet joins a small group of gas giants that are known to be at the verge of being tidally disrupted by their host stars. The group include planets such as WASP-12 b and WASP-19 b.

Artist’s impression of a gas giant. Credit: Daniel Mallia.

WASP-103 b is significantly inflated and has a bulk density that is only 55 percent the density of water. The low density of WASP-103 b is not just because of the intense irradiation it receives due to its extreme closeness to its host star. Tidal heating is also expected to contribute significantly to the planet's "bloatedness" since the planet's orbit is only 15 to 20 percent away the Roche Limit. Any closer, the planet is expected to be tidally destructed by the gravity of its host star.

Ultra-short-period gas giants that are right at the edge of being tidally disrupted might experience mass loss and significant tidal distortion. One such planet, WASP-12 b, is known to be surrounded by planetary material that has escaped it. In the case of WASP-103 b, the extreme irradiation it receives, the planet's inflated size and the brightness of its host star makes it favourable for atmospheric characterisation with existing ground-based and space-based telescopes. Observing signs of mass loss and tidal distortion for such extreme planets can shed light on the final stages in the lives of hot-Jupiters.

Reference:
M. Gillon et al. (2014), "WASP-103b: a new planet at the edge of tidal disruption", arXiv:1401.2784 [astro-ph.EP]