The first exoplanet was discovered orbiting a Main Sequence star in 1995, and the rate of exoplanet detections has been accelerating ever since.
It is worth noting that hundreds more candidate exoplanet detections have been made, many of which have been spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Kepler is staring at the same patch of sky, waiting for alien worlds to cross the line of sight between their parent star and Earth, registering a slight dip in starlight brightness. The 1,235 candidates will be confirmed (or denied) as Kepler awaits future transits.
Detecting the slight dimming of starlight isn’t the only tool exoplanet hunters have to spot these alien worlds. The “radial velocity” method — as employed by systems such as the ESO’s HARPS — can detect the slight “wobble” of stars as orbiting worlds gravitationally “tug” on their parent stars. Both methods have their advantages and both are notching up an impressive exoplanet count. “Microlensing” has also been employed to spot a handful of exoplanets, as has direct imaging.
Exoplanetary studies are amongst the most exciting astronomical projects out there. Not only are we realizing there is a veritable zoo of worlds — some Earth-sized, others many times the mass of Jupiter — we are also pondering the most profound question: could extraterrestrial life inhabit these worlds?
For now, we have no clue, but life as we know it has a habit of springing up where we least expect it, it’s only a matter of time before we start to have some clue as to the existence of life as we don’t know it.
Imagine the scene: I’m having a romantic walk on a clear night with my wife along the beach. We see a brief flash of light and Deb says, “Hey, a meteor!” I then proceed to tell her that most meteors are actually no bigger than a grain of sand and they originate from comets, even though she already knew that. Feeling quite chuffed with myself that I was able to describe a nugget of atmospheric dynamics in 2 minutes, Deb then points up again and says, “There’s Orion. What constellation is that one?”
“Um. I have no idea,” I reply, feeling less smug. “I know how those things work, but I don’t know what they look like.”
I don’t own a telescope (yet) and I only took one course in university on practical astronomy, everything else was astrophysics. So the sad thing is that I know how stars work — from the nuclear fusion in their core to coronal dynamics (the latter of which I did my PhD in) — but if anyone asked me to point out a constellation or the location of a star… I wouldn’t have a clue.
Sure, there are the old favorites, like Orion, the Big Dipper (or Plough) and bright Polaris, but my expertise in night sky viewing is pretty limited. Although I’d usually refer any astronomy-related questions to BBC astronomy presenter (and Discovery News writer) Mark Thompson, I’d love to learn more. So, firstly, I needed a star chart.
Luckily, a few weeks ago, I received a random email from Erik Anderson from Ashland Astronomy Studio asking whether I’d like a copy of his company’s new star map poster. Being eager to boost my pitiful knowledge of the constellations, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, my poster arrived through the post.
Now this is where things got really cool. Although Erik had titled his email to me “Star Map with Exoplanet Hosts,” I’d forgotten about the “exoplanet” part. On the clear, yet detailed Ashland star map, all the major constellations and stars are plotted, along with the time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) they can be seen. But also, there’s a symbol representing the hundreds of stars that are known to have exoplanetary systems orbiting.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been referring to my newly-framed star map, and can now confidently point into the sky, not only identifying the constellations but also some stars that possess exoplanets. Only last night, I pointed up in the general vicinity of the star 61 Virginis (near the blue giant Spica) and said, “That star has 3 worlds orbiting it.”
I’m not sure if Deb was overly impressed with my exoplanet knowledge, but I was happy to be smug again.
Although it’s only a very small part of an astronomer’s tool kit, a star map is essential. Although you can get apps for your iPhone, you can’t beat a poster that isn’t only functional, but also looks very attractive on your office wall.
Assuming Star Trek‘s Borg Collective went into overdrive and decided to build a huge cube a few thousand miles wide, then yes, the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope should be able to spot it. But how could Kepler distinguish a cube from a nice spherical exoplanet?
The big assumption when looking for exoplanets that drift between distant stars and the Earth — events known as “transits” — is that the only shape these detectable exoplanets come in are spheres. Obvious really.
As a world passes in front of its parent star, a circular shadow will form. However, from Earth, we’d detect a slight dimming of the star’s “light curve” during the transit, allowing astronomers to deduce the exoplanet’s orbital period and size.
The transit method has been used to confirm the presence of hundreds of exoplanets so far, and Kepler has found over 1,200 additional exoplanet candidates. But say if astronomers paid closer attention to the shape of the received light curve; spherical objects have a distinct signature, but say if something looked different in the transiting “planet’s” light curve? Well, it could mean that something non-spherical has passed in front of a star. And what does that mean? Well, that would be a pretty convincing argument for the presence of a huge planet-sized artificial structure orbiting another star. Artifical structure = super-advanced alien civilization.
Arnold tested his theory that all manner of shapes could be detected by Kepler, assuming the transiting structure was on the scale of a few thousand miles wide. In this case, Arnold was testing his hypothesis to see whether we could detect an advanced civilization’s “shadow play.” Perhaps, rather than beaming messages by radio waves, an advanced civilization might want to signal their presence — SETI style — by blocking their sun’s light with vast sheets of lightweight material. As the shape passes in front of the star, the slight dimming of starlight would reveal an artificial presence in orbit.
By putting a series of these shapes into orbit, the aliens could create a kind of interstellar Morse code.
Of course, this is a rather “out there” idea, but I find it fascinating that Kepler could detect an alien artifact orbiting a star tens or hundreds of light-years away. Although this research is only considering orbital “billboards,” I quite like the idea that Kepler might also be able to detect a large structure like… I don’t know… a big Borg mothership. Having advanced warning of the presence of an aggressive alien race sitting on our cosmic doorstep — especially ones of the variety that like to assimilate — would be pretty handy.
In 2009, I wrote about a fascinating idea: in the hunt for “Earth-like” exoplanets, perhaps we could detect the radio emissions from a distant world possessing a magnetosphere. This basically builds on the premise that planets in the solar system, including Earth, generate electromagnetic waves as space plasma interacts with their magnetospheres. In short, with the right equipment, could we “hear” the aurorae on extra-solar planets?
In the research I reviewed, the US Naval Research Laboratory scientist concluded that he believed it was possible, but the radio telescopes we have in operation aren’t sensitive enough to detect the crackle of distant aurorae. According to a new study presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, on Monday, this feat may soon become a reality, not for “Earth-like” worlds but for “Jupiter-like” worlds.
“This is the first study to predict the radio emissions by exoplanetary systems similar to those we find at Jupiter or Saturn,” said Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester. “At both planets, we see radio waves associated with auroras generated by interactions with ionised gas escaping from the volcanic moons, Io and Enceladus. Our study shows that we could detect emissions from radio auroras from Jupiter-like systems orbiting at distances as far out as Pluto.”
Rather than looking for the magnetospheres of Earth-like worlds — thereby finding exoplanets that have a protective magnetosphere that could nurture alien life — Nichols is focusing on larger, Jupiter-like worlds that orbit their host stars from a distance. This is basically another tool in the exoplanet-hunters’ toolbox.
Over 500 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist around other stars, and another 1,200 plus exoplanetary candidates have been cataloged by the Kepler Space Telescope. The majority of the confirmed exoplanets were spotted using the “transit method” (when the exoplanet passes in front of its host star, thereby dimming its light for astronomers to detect) and the “wobble method” (when the exoplanet gravitationally tugs on its parent star, creating a very slight shift in the star’s position for astronomers to detect), but only exoplanets with short orbital periods have been spotted so far.
The more distant the exoplanet from its host star, the longer its orbital period. To get a positive detection, it’s easy to spot an exoplanet with an orbital period of days, weeks, months, or a couple of years, but what of the exoplanets with orbits similar to Jupiter (12 years), Saturn (30 years) or even Pluto (248 years!)? If we are looking for exoplanets with extreme orbits like Pluto’s, it would be several generations-worth of observations before we’d even get a hint that a world lives there.
“Jupiter and Saturn take 12 and 30 years respectively to orbit the Sun, so you would have to be incredibly lucky or look for a very long time to spot them by a transit or a wobble,” said Nichols.
By assessing how the radio emissions for a Jupiter-like exoplanet respond to its rotation rate, the quantity of material falling into the gas giant from an orbiting moon (akin Enceladus’ plumes of water ice and dust being channeled onto the gas giant) and the exoplanet’s orbital distance, Nichols has been able to identify the characteristics of a possible target star. The hypothetical, “aurora-active” exoplanet would be located between 1 to 50 AU from an ultraviolet-bright star and it would need to have a fast spin for the resulting magnetospheric activity to be detectable at a distance of 150 light-years from Earth.
As we’re talking about exoplanets, magnetospheres and listening for radio signals, let’s throw in some alien-hunting for good measure: “In our Solar System, we have a stable system with outer gas giants and inner terrestrial planets, like Earth, where life has been able to evolve. Being able to detect Jupiter-like planets may help us find planetary systems like our own, with other planets that are capable of supporting life,” Nichols added.
Although Nichols isn’t talking about directly detecting habitable alien worlds (just that the detection of Jupiter-like exoplanets could reveal Solar System-like star systems), I think back to the 2009 research that discusses the direct detection of habitable worlds using this method: Aliens, if you’re out there, you can be as quiet as you like (to avoid predators), but the screaming radio emissions from your habitable planet’s magnetosphere will give away your location…
Judging by an exuberant claim by Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, one would think we now know there’s life on this strangely familiar world.
“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Vogt told Discovery News when the announcement broke on Wednesday.
Why did he say that his personal view was that the chances for life on Gliese 581g are 100%? At first glance, it is easy to see where he’s coming from.
Firstly, the exoplanet orbits close to a small red dwarf star (called Gliese 581), with a fast-paced orbit of 37 days. This is important as the energy output of a red dwarf is tiny when compared to our Sun (which is a yellow dwarf star, in case you were wondering) — to receive an equivalent amount of heating as the Earth, Gliese 581g needs to be much closer to its star.
Also, it isn’t orbiting too close. It is within the habitable zone (or the “Goldilocks zone,” i.e., a zone that’s not too hot or too cold) of the system. Therefore there’s a high probability that if water is present on its surface, it’s likely to be in liquid form. The presence of liquid water would be exciting as Earth Brand™ life likes liquid water.
Secondly, Gliese 581g is small for an exoplanet discovered thus far. Weighing in at a minimum mass of 3x that of the Earth, it could certainly have some Earth-like qualities. This has another implication; the world has enough gravitational oomph to hold onto an atmosphere — another ingredient that life seems to like (assuming it’s not of the bone-crushing, lead-boiling, Venus-type atmosphere).
But there’s a few complications. To be within the habitable zone of its parent star, Gliese 581g will be “tidally locked.” This means that one side of the exoplanet will always be facing the star. On the far side (or, indeed, the “dark side”) it will be cold whilst the near side will always be hot. Having one perpetual day doesn’t sound very Earth-like to me. But there is an upside to this strange orbit.
“This planet doesn’t have days and nights. Wherever you are on this planet, the sun is in the same position all the time. You have very stable zones where the ecosystem stays the same temperature… basically forever,” Vogt said. “If life can evolve, it’s going to have billions and billions of years to adapt to the surface.”
So a tidally-locked planet could have a stable atmosphere and perhaps life could evolve as a result. What could be considered to be a negative has just become a positive.
With all this good news, why wouldn’t life be thriving on this world?
Unknowns and Assumptions
There’s still a lot of unknowns and assumptions being made. For a start, the presence of Gliese 581g was detected by measuring the “wobble” of the star as the exoplanet orbits (its gravity tugs on the star as it circles). Therefore its mass and orbital radius can be derived. But we have no information about its atmosphere; the world doesn’t pass in front (or “transit”) the star from our perspective, so we can’t get a peek into its atmosphere.
Therefore we have zero clue as to whether it even has an atmosphere. It might not have an atmosphere, but then again it could have a very thick atmosphere — two extremes that would would put a stop to any Earth Brand™ life evolving. Also, we have zero clue if there’s any water there, it’s just guesswork that suggests there might be. There’s also the huge unknown as to whether life is ubiquitous in the cosmos or not.
Bread in the Oven
It’s a bit like baking a loaf of bread when you have all the necessary ingredients to make bread, but you have no clue about what quantities to use. Gliese 581g appears to have most of the ingredients for life (and with a few assumptions, it has all the ingredients for life), but we only have a general idea as to what quantities these ingredients come in.
If you threw flour, water and yeast straight into the breadmaker in random quantities, would you get a loaf of bread? What if you forgot to add the yeast?
Gliese 581g is that breadmaker. Unfortunately we have no clue if it can make bread.
For this special little planet, today has been a very big day.
Although we’ve speculated that planets the size of Earth must exist elsewhere in the cosmos, it wasn’t until one of the co-investigators working with the Kepler Space Telescope said he had statistical evidence that worlds of the approximate size of Earth appear to dominate our Milky Way.
We now know Earth isn’t unique.
Alas, this historic news didn’t come without controversy. It was unofficially broken at a TED conference in Oxford earlier this month and only after a recording of a presentation given by Dimitar Sasselov was posted online did the news get out. What’s more, the announcement only became clear when Sasselov referred to a presentation slide depicting a bar chart with the different sizes of exoplanets discovered by Kepler:
This slide shows the number of exoplanets discovered up until this month, binned by size. We have Jupiter-like exoplanets, Saturn-like exoplanets and Neptune-like exoplanets, all compared with Earth’s radius.
The heart-stopping moment comes when looking at the bar that represents Earth-like exoplanets (i.e. worlds with a radius of below 2 Earth radii, or “<2 Re"). According to Sasselov, Kepler has detected a lot of Earth-like worlds, so many in fact that they dominate the picture. From what we have here, it would appear that around 140 exoplanets are considered to be like Earth.
“The statistical result is loud and clear,” said Sasselov. “And the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there. Our Milky Way galaxy is rich in these kinds of planets.”
But why the controversy? Isn’t this good news?
It would appear that the Kepler co-investigator chose not to wait until the official press release from NASA. He publicized these groundbreaking results in the U.K. at an event where you had to buy tickets to attend. This isn’t usually the stage you’d expect this kind of discovery to be announced — a move that will undoubtedly upset many.
“What is really annoying is that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements,” Keith Cowing, of NASAWatch.com, wrote in a SpaceRef article today. “And then the project’s Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience – offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.”
This sentiment is understandable. Only last month there was some frustration vented at the Kepler team for holding back data on 400 exoplanet candidates. While this might be standard practice — the discovering team should be allowed some time to publish work on any discoveries they have uncovered — telling the world’s scientists they will have to wait until February 2011 before they can get their hands on this invaluable data was a bridge too far.
In light of this, for a Kepler scientist to then jump the gun and disclose a groundbreaking discovery at an international conference without the backing of an official NASA release seems a little hypocritical.
But there is another argument to put out there: Why should anyone sit on such a profound discovery? Perhaps NASA and the Kepler team should have issued an earlier press release announcing to the world that 140 candidate Earth-like worlds have been detected and that further work will need to be done to confirm.
Ultimately, this controversy is just background noise when compared to what we have learned today. Official confirmation or not, Dimitar Sasselov’s message is clear. Although these detections need to be confirmed (hence why these worlds are referred to as “candidates”), it would appear there is an overwhelming preponderance of exoplanets measuring 2 Earth radii or less.
For me, that fact alone is astonishing — the first scientific evidence that worlds of Earth dimensions are not rare.
The first results from NASA’s Kepler exoplanet hunter are in and a perplexing early result has been announced. Yes, the space telescope is working fine, and no, it hasn’t spotted an alien homeworld (yet), but the Kepler team have uncovered something pretty cool.
Kepler may have discovered a new class of celestial object (possibly).
But before we start scratching our heads in confusion or popping the champagne corks in celebration, let’s try to work out what Kepler has observed.
Kepler is currently monitoring 100,000 stars in an effort to seek out extra-solar planets (or “exoplanets”) orbiting these stars. Although Kepler was only launched in March 2009 and early doubts about the observatory’s capabilities caused some low-level concern, Kepler appears to be functioning well and mission controllers are already reporting early results.
In sifting through the Kepler data taken so far, postdoctoral student Jason Rowe found a very curious light signature. When an object passed behind its central star, the light from the system dropped significantly. This means the object — called KOI 74b — must be glowing fiercely with its own light that was blocked out when the object was eclipsed.
Hold up, the light dimmed when the exoplanet passed behind its parent star? Something’s not right here. Kepler detects exoplanets when the worlds pass in front of their parent stars, thereby dimming the starlight, not vice versa!
Actually, this is exactly what’s happened. The “exoplanets” orbiting two otherwise ordinary stars appear to be brighter — and hotter — than their host stars. It’s as if the roles of the stars and the exoplanets have been reversed; the stars are dimming the exoplanetary light as the exoplanet passes behind the star.
Needless to say, there is currently no stellar model that predicts this kind of behavior from extra-solar planetary systems.
This means the object — called KOI 74b — must be glowing fiercely with its own light that was blocked out when the object was eclipsed […] It is seething at 70,000 degrees Fahrenheit while the parent star is 17,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The strange object can’t be a star because the transit data show that it is no bigger than Jupiter. —Ray Villard, Discovery News.
One theory is that KOI 74b (and the other strange object, KOI 81b) could be a white dwarf star that migrated close to its stellar partner. Through binary interactions, the white dwarf was stripped of some of its mass, causing it to puff up and appear like a gas giant exoplanet. That would certainly go to some way of explaining why these two “exoplanets” are so hot.
Of course, the other option is that Kepler has made a groundbreaking discovery and identified a whole new class of celestial object… but I suspect there are other, more mundane reasons for these observations.
I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see until followup observations are made…
This is probably one of the biggest questions that hang over science fiction story lines: Will extraterrestrials have any resemblance to Life As We Know It™? To be honest, to toy with the thought of anything other than carbon-based life is pure conjecture, just because there might be some other form of life (such as silicon-based creatures), doesn’t mean there is (doesn’t mean there isn’t, either). So, here we are with the only form of life we know and understand, carbon-based life that was somehow spawned via a crazy mix of amino acids and some astronomical or terrestrial event that sparked the formation of prokaryotes (a.k.a. the simplest single-celled speck of life) some 4 billion years ago.
So we have an understanding of what formed life on Earth, perhaps if we look for the traces of evidence that evolved into Life As We Know It™ we can gauge whether extraterrestrial life has-formed/is-forming/will-form elsewhere in the observable Universe. From simulations of Earth evolution, scientists have predicted that 10 types of amino acids should form with the planet. These 10 amino acids are found inside the proteins of all living things on Earth. The same 10 amino acids have been found inside meteorites. Therefore, we already have a connection with the amino acids we find here on Earth and amino acids found in chunks of rock from elsewhere in the Solar System.
Now, a group of Canadian researchers have found that the same 10 amino acids are readily available elsewhere in the cosmos. Does this mean the components for life are common, not only on Earth, in the Solar System, but also in the Milky Way (and beyond)? It looks like it… Continue reading “Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?”
Is there a new way to hunt for habitable Earth-like exoplanets? According to a US Naval Research Laboratory researcher there is an obvious, yet ingenious, way of listening for these worlds. Like most Earth-like exoplanet searches, we are looking for characteristics of our own planet. So what do we need to survive on Earth? Obviously we need water and the correct mix of oxygen with other atmospheric gases, but what about the magnetic bubble we live in? The Earth’s magnetosphere protects us from the worst the Sun can throw at us, preventing the atmosphere from being eroded into space and deflecting life-hindering radiation.
Although we have yet to develop sensitive enough radio telescopes, it may be possible in the future to detect the radio waves generated as charged particles in stellar winds interact with Earth-like exoplanetary magnetospheres. If there’s a magnetosphere, there may be a protected atmosphere. If there’s an atmosphere, perhaps there’s life being nurtured below…
In the 17th Century, Johannes Kepler defined the laws of planetary motion around our star. Now the Kepler space telescope will define the motion of alien worlds around distant stars. Go find us some exoplanets!
I saw this image on The Write Stuff blog at the Orlando Sentinel, and I had to share. It is the moment of ignition of the Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex-17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just before lift-off of NASA’s Kepler mission.