Exocomets Seen Transiting Kepler’s Stars

ESO/L. Calçada

If you thought detecting small planets orbiting stars dozens of light-years distant was impressive, imagine trying to “see” individual comets zoom around their star. Well, astronomers have done just that after poring over 201,250 targets in the Kepler dataset.

NASA’s Kepler mission has been taking observational data since 2009, staring unblinkingly at a small area of sky in the direction of the constellation Cygnus until it transitioned into the K2 mission in 2013. In total, the space telescope has discovered over 2,500 confirmed exoplanets (and over 5,000 candidate exoplanets), transforming our understanding of the incredible menagerie of alien worlds in our galaxy. After including discoveries by other observatories, we know of over 3,500 exoplanets that are out there.

Kepler looks for very slight dips in light as exoplanets pass in front of their stars to detect alien worlds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Kepler detects exoplanets by watching out for periodic dips in the brightness of stars in its field of view. Should a slight dip in brightness be detected, it could mean that there’s an exoplanet orbiting in front of its host star—an event known as a “transit.” While these transits can help astronomers learn about the physical size of exoplanets and the period of their orbits, for example, there’s much more information in the transit data than initially meets the eye.

In a new study to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Feb. 21, a team of researchers are reporting that they have found evidence for individual comets transiting in front of two stars. They detected six individual transits at the star KIC 3542116, which is located approximately 800 light-years from Earth, and one transit at KIC 11084727. Both stars of a similar type (F2V) and are quite bright.

Though other observations have revealed dusty evidence of cometary activity in other star systems before, this is the first time individual comets have been found leaving their own transit signal in Kepler data. And it turns out that their transit fingerprint is a little bit special:

One comet’s three transits around its host star, KIC 3542116. Credit: Rappaport et al. MNRAS 474, 1453, 2018.

“The transits have a distinct asymmetric shape with a steeper ingress and slower egress that can be ascribed to objects with a trailing dust tail passing over the stellar disk,” the astronomers write in their paper (arXiv preprint). “There are three deeper transits with depths of ≃ 0.1 percent that last for about a day, and three that are several times more shallow and of shorter duration.”

In other words, when compared with the transit of an exoplanet, comet transits appear wonky (or asymmetric). This is because comets possess tails of gas and dust that trail the nucleus; as the comet passes in front of its star, starlight is quickly blocked, but as it drifts by in its orbit, the dusty tail will act as a starlight dimmer, gradually allowing more starlight to be seen by Kepler. An exoplanet—or, indeed, any spherical object without a dusty tail—will create a symmetrical dip in the transit signal. Other possible causes of this unique transit signal (such as starspots and instrumental error) were systematically ruled out. (Interestingly, in a 1999 Astronomy & Astrophysics paper, this asymmetric comet transit signal was predicted by another team of researchers, giving this current work some extra certainty.)

But just because there was evidence of six comet transits at KIC 3542116, it doesn’t mean there were six comets. Some of those transits could have been caused by the same comet, so the researchers have hedged their bets, writing: “We have tentatively postulated that these are due to between 2 and 6 distinct comet-like bodies in the system.”

Using these transit data, the study also takes a stab at how big these comets are and even estimates their orbital velocities. The researchers calculate that these comets have masses that are comparable to Halley’s Comet, the famous short-period comet that orbits the sun every 74-79 years and was last visible from Earth in 1986. For the deeper transits (for KIC 3542116 and the single transit at KIC 11084727), they estimate that the comets causing those transits are travelling at speeds of between 35 to 50 kilometers per second (22 to 31 miles per second). For the shallow, narrow transits at KIC 3542116, the inferred speeds are between 75 to 90 kilometers per second (47 to 56 miles per second).

“From these speeds we can surmise that the corresponding orbital periods are ⪆ 90 days (and most probably, much longer) for the deeper transits, and ⪆ 50 days for the shorter events,” they write.

But the fact that comets were detected at two similar F2V-type stars gives the researchers pause. Is there something special about these stars that means there’s more likelihood of possessing comets? Or is it just chance? Also, the fact that these comet transits were identified by visually analyzing the Kepler datasets suggests that there are likely many more transits hiding in the archived Kepler observations.

One thing’s for sure: this is a mind-blowing discovery that underscores just how valuable exoplanet-hunting missions are for probing the environment around other stars and not just for discovering strange new worlds. I’m excited for what other discoveries are waiting in Kepler transit data and for future exoplanet-hunting missions such as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) that is scheduled for launch this year.

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