TESS discovers solar system of rocky super-Earths only 33 light years away

Astronomers, using the space telescope TESS, have discovered two rocky super-Earths orbiting a red dwarf star HD 260655, only 33 light years away.

Both planets are “super-Earths” – terrestrial worlds like ours, only bigger. Planet b is about 1.2 times as big around as Earth, planet c 1.5 times. In this case, however, neither world is likely to support life. The temperature on planet b, nearest to the star, is estimated at 816 degrees Fahrenheit (435 Celsius), [while] planet [has a temperature of] c 543 Fahrenheit (284 Celsius), though actual temperature depends on the presence and nature of possible atmospheres.

The star’s nearness as well as the fact that these planets transit across its face means further study can not only determine if they have atmospheres, it can also roughly measure the atmospheres’ make-up.

Astronomers directly image the orbital motion of Jupiter protoplanet 531 light years away

AB Aurigae B's motion over thirteen years
Click for original image.

Astronomers, using a number of ground- and space-based telescopes, have now directly photographed the orbital motion of a Jupiter protoplanet orbiting a star 531 light years away over a thirteen year time span.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, shows images produced by two Hubble instruments. The caption:

Researchers were able to directly image newly forming exoplanet AB Aurigae b over a 13-year span using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph (NICMOS). In the top right, Hubble’s NICMOS image captured in 2007 shows AB Aurigae b in a due south position compared to its host star, which is covered by the instrument’s coronagraph. The image captured in 2021 by STIS shows the protoplanet has moved in a counterclockwise motion over time.

From the paper’s abstract:

Using the Subaru Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, we find evidence for a Jovian protoplanet around AB Aurigae orbiting at a wide projected separation (~93 au), probably responsible for multiple planet-induced features in the disk. Its emission is reproducible as reprocessed radiation from an embedded protoplanet.

The accretion disk around AB Aurigae happens to lie face on to our line of sight, which facilitates these observations. The data also shows two additional potential proto-planets farther from the star.

Have astronomers found an exoplanet with raining metal and gems?

The uncertainty of science: Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers think they have detected on a hot Jupiter exoplanet 880 light years away the formation of clouds and rain made up metals and gems.

The exoplanet is tidally locked so that one side always faces its star, which also means the temperature difference between the two hemispheres is gigantic, 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit on the dayside and about 2,600 degrees on the nightside.

Previous Hubble data showed signs of metals including iron, magnesium, chromium and vanadium existing as gasses on the planet’s dayside. But in this study, the researchers have found that on the planet’s nightside, it gets cold enough for these metals to condense into clouds.

And, just as the strong winds pull water vapor and atoms around the planet to break apart and recombine, metal clouds will blow to the planet’s dayside and evaporate, condense back on the nightside and so on.

But metal clouds aren’t the only strange phenomenon these researchers spotted on this hot Jupiter. They also found evidence of possible rain in the form of liquid gems.

While tantalizing and alien, these results have many uncertainties. What the data suggests might not be the reality. To find out more, the astronomers hope to use the James Webb Space Telescope to do more infrared observations, once it becomes operational.

Astronomers detect interstellar object invading another distant solar system

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) astronomers think they have detected for the first time an interstellar object that has invaded another distant solar system and disturbed material in its protoplanetary accretion disk.

From the paper’s abstract:

A point source ~4,700 au [astronomical unit, equal to about 100 million miles] from the binary has been discovered at both millimetre and centimetre wavelengths. It is located along the extension of a ~2,000 au streamer structure previously found in scattered light imaging, whose counterpart in dust and gas emission is also newly identified. Comparison with simulations shows signposts of a rare flyby event in action.

This data further confirms that interactions between interstellar objects occur with reasonably frequency, and can thus act to influence the formation of solar systems.

An oblong exoplanet?

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers, using a variety of space telescopes, have concluded that the shape of an exoplanet in the constellation Hercules is deformed by tidal forces imposed on it by its star.

On the planet WASP-103b, tides are much more extreme. The planet orbits its star in just one day and is deformed by the strong tidal forces so drastically that its appearance resembles a rugby ball. This is shown by a new study involving researchers from the Universities of Bern and Geneva as well as the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS, published today in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The data also suggests that the nearby heat of its star has also caused the exoplanet to be inflated in size.

Need I add that this result is uncertain? It requires the scientists to make many assumptions based on only a tiny bit of data, something they admit to near the end of the press release, where the releases notes that this result needs to be confirmed by future observations.

Astronomers detect 70 to 170 free floating exoplanets

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers today announced that they think they have detected from 70 to 170 exoplanets in a nearby star-forming region that are apparently free-floating, unattached to any star or solar system.

The astronomers also combined the vast number of images available in public astronomical archives with the new deep wide-field observations obtained with the best infrared and optical telescopes on the ground and in space. Using over 80,000 wide-field images adding up to around 100 terabytes and spanning 20 years, they identified at least 70, and up to as many as 170 of these Jupiter-sized planets, as members of the Upper Scorpius association among the background stars and galaxies.

If confirmed, this discovery more than doubles the number of free-floating planets known.

The discovery was made by first using the motion of the stars to pinpoint which ones belonged to the Upper Scorpius star-forming region. The astronomers then compared this data with past archival telescopic images.

Though intriguing, a great deal of skepticism of this discovery is required. The press release is very vague about some points. For example, no explanation is given on how they measured the mass of these objects to determine they were Jupiter-sized.

Evidence from nearby white dwarfs suggest rocky exoplanets are alien to Earth

The uncertainty of science: Evidence from 23 white dwarfs, all located less than 650 light years from Earth, suggest that the make-up of rocky exoplanets are likely very alien to Earth, with minerals and chemistry that is found nowhere in our solar system.

They found that these white dwarfs have a much wider range of compositions than any of the inner planets in our solar system, suggesting their planets had a wider variety of rock types. In fact, some of the compositions are so unusual that Putirka and Xu had to create new names (such as “quartz pyroxenites” and “periclase dunites”) to classify the novel rock types that must have existed on those planets.

“While some exoplanets that once orbited polluted white dwarfs appear similar to Earth, most have rock types that are exotic to our solar system,” said Xu. “They have no direct counterparts in the solar system.”

Putirka describes what these new rock types might mean for the rocky worlds they belong to. “Some of the rock types that we see from the white dwarf data would dissolve more water than rocks on Earth and might impact how oceans are developed,” he explained. “Some rock types might melt at much lower temperatures and produce thicker crust than Earth rocks, and some rock types might be weaker, which might facilitate the development of plate tectonics.”

The data from the white dwarfs is believed to be the leftover material of exoplanets that were absorbed by the star, sometime in the far past.

First, this result should not be a surprise. To even think for a second that planets in other solar systems would be similar to the planets in our solar system is unrealistic. Even in our solar system we have found that practically every single body — planets, moons, asteroids, comets — is remarkably unique. Other solar systems are sure to be even more alien.

Second, the result here is somewhat uncertain. The scientists were not gathering data of actual exoplanets, but what is believed to be the remains that had been swallowed by the stars. The scientists then extrapolated backwards to come up with these alien rock types. The result, while very suggestive, must be taken with some skepticism.

Water and carbon monoxide detected in exoplanet’s atmosphere

Astronomers, using both the Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based Gemini Telescope, have detected water and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet 320 light years away.

Previously hydrogen, helium, hydrogen cyanide, iron, and magnesium have been detected in the atmospheres of a variety of exoplanets. In other cases scientists found exoplanets that were devoid of water.

This detection of water and carbon monoxide is a first for these two materials, and is somewhat significant as it is the first detection that suggests an exoplanet atmosphere that might have similarities to Earth.

First exoplanet detected in another galaxy?

The uncertainty of science: Using the Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers think they may have detected the first exoplanet ever found in another galaxy, the Whirlpool Galaxy, 28 million light years away.

This new result is based on transits, events in which the passage of a planet in front of a star blocks some of the star’s light and produces a characteristic dip. Astronomers using both ground-based and space-based telescopes — like those on NASA’s Kepler and TESS missions — have searched for dips in optical light, electromagnetic radiation humans can see, enabling the discovery of thousands of planets.

Di Stefano and colleagues have instead searched for dips in the brightness of X-rays received from X-ray bright binaries. These luminous systems typically contain a neutron star or black hole pulling in gas from a closely orbiting companion star. The material near the neutron star or black hole becomes superheated and glows in X-rays.

Because the region producing bright X-rays is small, a planet passing in front of it could block most or all of the X-rays, making the transit easier to spot because the X-rays can completely disappear. This could allow exoplanets to be detected at much greater distances than current optical light transit studies, which must be able to detect tiny decreases in light because the planet only blocks a tiny fraction of the star.

The team used this method to detect the exoplanet candidate in a binary system called M51-ULS-1, located in M51. This binary system contains a black hole or neutron star orbiting a companion star with a mass about 20 times that of the Sun. The X-ray transit they found using Chandra data lasted about three hours, during which the X-ray emission decreased to zero. Based on this and other information, the researchers estimate the exoplanet candidate in M51-ULS-1 would be roughly the size of Saturn, and orbit the neutron star or black hole at about twice the distance of Saturn from the Sun.

While this is a tantalizing study, more data would be needed to verify the interpretation as an extragalactic exoplanet. One challenge is that the planet candidate’s large orbit means it would not cross in front of its binary partner again for about 70 years, thwarting any attempts for a confirming observation for decades. [emphasis mine]

As the press release says, this data is tantalizing, but it is really insufficient to prove that an exoplanet has been found. What is known is that for some reason the X-ray emissions from the X-ray binary system disappeared for about three hours. An exoplanet could be one explanation. So could many other things.

For the first time astronomers measure the rotation of exoplanets

The uncertainty of science: Using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii astronomers for the first time have measured the rotation of several exoplanets orbiting the star HR8799, about 129 light years away.

Using the state-of-the-art Keck Planet Imager and Characterizer (KPIC) on the Keck II telescope atop Hawaiʻi Island’s Maunakea, astronomers found that the minimum rotation speeds of HR 8799 planets d and e clocked in at 10.1 km/s and 15 km/s, respectively. This translates to a length of day that could be as short as three hours or could be up to 24 hours such as on Earth depending on the axial tilts of the HR 8799 planets, which are currently undetermined. For context, one day on Jupiter lasts nearly 10 hours; its rotation speed is about 12.7 km/s.

As for the other two planets, the team was able to constrain the spin of HR 8799 c to an upper limit of less than 14 km/s; planet b’s rotation measurement was inconclusive.

These results are somewhat uncertain, as are any conclusions theorists try to draw from them. Even if confirmed, the sample is so small it doesn’t tell us anything yet about overall trends in planet formation or the expected spin rate of planets as they form.

Nonetheless, the detection appears valid and thus a scientific triumph. Astronomers have been telling me for years that figuring out ways to find out more about exoplanets is going to become the next hot subject in astronomy. This result illustrates this.

Astronomers detect for the first time an accretion disk around an exoplanet

The exoplanet and its accretion disk
Click for full image.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers have made the first confirmed images of a moon-forming accretion disk around another a very young exoplanet.

The photo to the right shows this, with the top image the wide view showing the exoplanet in its orbit around the star, in an area inside the star’s own accretion disk (the larger ring) that the planet has apparently cleared of debris as it gathered itself. The bottom image zooms into the planet to show its own disk of material.

From the press release:

The disc in question, called a circumplanetary disc, surrounds the exoplanet PDS 70c, one of two giant, Jupiter-like planets orbiting a star nearly 400 light-years away. Astronomers had found hints of a “moon-forming” disc around this exoplanet before but, since they could not clearly tell the disc apart from its surrounding environment, they could not confirm its detection — until now.

In addition, with the help of ALMA, Benisty and her team found that the disc has about the same diameter as the distance from our Sun to the Earth and enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon.

The exoplanet’s disk is thus very large compared to our solar system, but that isn’t surprising considering the difficulty of observing it at such distances. Disks comparable in size to our solar system and the Earth-Moon system are simply too small for any telescope to yet image in this way.

The new data also found this interesting fact: The other known Jupiter-like exoplanet in this system does not have its own accretion disk or any visible debris orbiting it. Why one planet still has such debris and the other does not is a mystery related to the formation of solar systems that is at present not understood.

2,000 nearby stars found that see the Earth cross in front of the Sun

Astronomers have identified 2,134 nearby stars that at some point in the past, present, or future are properly positioned along the solar system’s ecliptic so that the Earth can be seen transiting in front of the Sun.

From their paper’s abstract:

[W]e report that 1,715 stars within 100 parsecs from the Sun are in the right position to have spotted life on a transiting Earth since early human civilization (about 5,000 years ago), with an additional 319 stars entering this special vantage point in the next 5,000 years. Among these stars are seven known exoplanet hosts, including Ross-128, which saw Earth transit the Sun in the past, and Teegarden’s Star and Trappist-1, which will start to see it in 29 and 1,642 years, respectively. We found that human-made radio waves have already swept over 75 of the closest stars on our list. [emphasis mine]

I like the detail highlighted. Of the stars that could definitely identify the Earth by transits, 75 are also now close enough to have also heard our radio broadcasts. Should any of those stars also have a sufficiently advanced alien civilization, they could know of our existence. These same stars in turn make for very good targets of study for us to see if there is alien life there.

Possible exoplanet detected in habitable zone around Alpha Centauri A?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists have detected faint evidence that suggests the existence of a Neptune-sized exoplanet circling the sunlike star Alpha Centauri A.

After analyzing 100 hours of data gathered by NEAR in May and June of 2019, the scientists detected a thermal fingerprint in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri A. The signal potentially corresponds to a roughly Neptune-size world orbiting between 1 and 2 astronomical units (AU) from the star, study team members said. (One AU, the average Earth-sun distance, is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.)

But that planet has not yet been confirmed, so it remains a candidate for now.

This result is very uncertain at this moment, so we should constrain our enthusiasm. If true, however, it would signal the possibility of more exoplanets circling the stars of the nearest stellar system. Alpha Centauri is actually three stars, a binary of two sunlike stars circled at great distance by the red dwarf Proxima Centauri. Scientists already think there are exoplanets circling Proxima, with one about the size of Earth.

What makes this particular interesting, if true, is that the exoplanet was detected not by the slight wobble its gravity caused in the star, or by a transit across the face of the star, but by its own light. If the detection is real, this would be I think the first time that an exoplanet has been seen directly, even if that detection comprises a few tiny pixels of light.

Astronomers detect radio signal from an exoplanet’s magnetic field

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers using a Netherlands telescope have detected a radio signal coming from an exoplanet 51 light years away that likely comes from the planet’s magnetic field.

The new research actually began at Jupiter; the researchers had previously studied that planet’s radio emissions and then tweaked those measurements to reflect the effect they expected closeness to the host star and distance from Earth would have had on their observations of an exoplanet.

Then, the scientists consulted observations made in 2016 and 2017 by the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) in the Netherlands. In addition to the potential signal from Tau Boötes b, the researchers also report that they may have picked up a signal from the star Upsilon Andromedae or its planet, but that detection was even fainter than the one from Tau Boötes b.

Obviously, there are many uncertainties with this data. However, if scientists can begin to measure and characterize the magnetic field of exoplanets it will give them an important new data point for studying them.

Two dozen exoplanets superior to Earth for life?

The uncertainty of science: A team of scientists have now identified 24 exoplanets from the Kepler telescope archive that they propse might actually be better for life than Earth itself.

All the exoplanets are rocky and terrestrial, like the Earth. All are in the habitable zone, meaning that they orbit their star at a distance that makes their general temperature comparable to Earth.

What makes them superior, according to these scientists, are three factors. First, their stars are not G-type stars, like the Sun, but K-types. K-types have much longer lifespans, 70 billion years compared to the Sun’s 8 to 10 billion, allowing more time for life to develop.

Second, the planets have a slightly greater mass than Earth.

Part of the reason the Earth is habitable is because it’s large enough to be geologically active, giving it a protective magnetic field, and has enough gravity to retain an atmosphere. According to the team, if a planet was 10 percent larger, it would have more surface area to live on. If it was 1.5 times as massive as the Earth, its interior would retain more heat from radioactive decay, would remain active longer, and hold onto its atmosphere for a longer time.

Finally, the orbits of these two dozen exoplanets makes them just slighter warmer than Earth, which is thought to be beneficial to life.

This is interesting, but it is pure guesswork. These factors might make our Earth life happier, but these scientists have no idea if such conditions are beneficial or harmful to the creation of life. At present we have zero data on what the ideal conditions would be.

Astronomers detect the first exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf

Astronomers announced today that they have detected the first exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf, meaning that it somehow survived the star’s expansion into a red giant.

The way a white dwarf is created destroys nearby objects either by incineration or gravitational destruction. White dwarfs form when stars like the Sun near the end of their life cycles. They swell up, expand to hundreds and even thousands of times their regular size, forming a red giant. Eventually, that outer, expanded layer is ejected from the star and only a hot, dense white dwarf core remains.

So how did a planet, known as WD 1856 b, that is Jupiter-like get into such a close proximity that it completes an orbit of the white dwarf (that is only 18,000 km / 11,000 miles across) every 34 hours?

“WD 1856 b somehow got very close to its white dwarf and managed to stay in one piece,” said Andrew Vanderburg, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The white dwarf creation process destroys nearby planets, and anything that later gets too close is usually torn apart by the star’s immense gravity. We still have many questions about how WD 1856 b arrived at its current location without meeting one of those fates.”

Here we go again: This news story, as well as all of the press releases for this announcement (here, here, here, and here) — in their effort to hype this release — all conveniently forget to mention that the very first exoplanets ever discovered back in 1992 actually orbited a pulsar, the remains of a star that had not only died but had died in a cataclysmic supernova explosion. Moreover, that discovery was not of one exoplanet, but three, forming a solar system of three rocky terrestrial exoplanets all orbiting the pulsar at distances less than 43 million miles, which would put them inside the orbit of Venus.

How those terrestrial planets survived a supernova was a mystery. Today’s discovery only heightens that same puzzle, as this Jupiter-sized exoplanet orbits much closer to its white dwarf.

Regardless, the press releases from these universities and NASA should have made these facts clear. Instead, they pump up this discovery as if it is the very first ever. Today’s discovery might have unique components (the first hot Jupiter exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf) but it isn’t the first of this kind, not by a long shot.

Expect the press by tomorrow to compound this failure. Modern reporters seem completely uneducated about the subjects they write about, and also seem all-to-willing to accept on faith whatever public relations departments tell them.

TESS completes primary mission

Having now imaged 75% of the entire night sky and completing its primary mission, scientists have now begun the extended mission for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), designed to look for transiting exoplanets.

TESS monitors 24-by-96-degree strips of the sky called sectors for about a month using its four cameras. The mission spent its first year observing 13 sectors comprising the southern sky and then spent another year imaging the northern sky.

Now in its extended mission, TESS has turned around to resume surveying the south. In addition, the TESS team has introduced improvements to the way the satellite collects and processes data. Its cameras now capture a full image every 10 minutes, three times faster than during the primary mission. A new fast mode allows the brightness of thousands of stars to be measured every 20 seconds, along with the previous method of collecting these observations from tens of thousands of stars every two minutes. The faster measurements will allow TESS to better resolve brightness changes caused by stellar oscillations and to capture explosive flares from active stars in greater detail.

These changes will remain in place for the duration of the extended mission, which will be completed in September 2022. After spending a year imaging the southern sky, TESS will take another 15 months to collect additional observations in the north and to survey areas along the ecliptic – the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun – that the satellite has not yet imaged.

So far the telescope has spotted more than 2,100 exoplanet candidates, with 66 confirmed.

All told, TESS has divided the sky into 26 sectors, 13 in the north and 13 in the south. It can only look at one at a time for a month, and scientists use that one month data, collected more than once, to see if there are any changes. Because of the gaps in TESS’s view of each sector, however, it is guaranteed to miss some exoplanets (the majority) whose transits occur when it is not looking.

Imagine if we had 25 more of these space telescopes in orbit, so that each sector could be watched continually. This is totally doable now, and would make it possible to soon create a census of transiting exoplanets across the entire sky.

Astronomers use Hubble to detect ozone on Earth

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists have shown that it will be possible to detect ozone in the atmospheres of exoplanets, using larger telescopes while observing transits of those exoplanets across the face of their star.

What the scientists did was aim Hubble at the Moon during a lunar eclipse. Moreover, they timed the observations so that the sunlight hitting the Moon and reflecting back to Earth (and Hubble) had also traveled through the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to the Moon.

They then looked at the spectrum of that light, and were able to glean from it the spectral signal of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere. When giant ground-based telescopes under construction now come on line in the coming decades they will have the ability to do this with transiting exoplanets.

The measurements detected the strong spectral fingerprint of ozone, a key prerequisite for the presence – and possible evolution – of life as we know it in an exo-Earth. Although some ozone signatures had been detected in previous ground-based observations during lunar eclipses, Hubble’s study represents the strongest detection of the molecule to date because it can look at the ultraviolet light, which is absorbed by our atmosphere and does not reach the ground. On Earth, photosynthesis over billions of years is responsible for our planet’s high oxygen levels and thick ozone layer. Only 600 million years ago Earth’s atmosphere had built up enough ozone to shield life from the Sun’s lethal ultraviolet radiation. That made it safe for the first land-based life to migrate out of our oceans.

“Finding ozone in the spectrum of an exo-Earth would be significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is a byproduct of life,” explained Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Colorado, USA, lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Ozone does not guarantee the presence of life on an exoplanet, but combined with other detections, such as oxygen and methane, would raise the odds significantly.

First image of multi-exoplanets around young sunlike star

Two exoplanets in one image

Worlds without end: Using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, astronomers have taken the first image that captures two different exoplanets circling a young sunlike star.

The star’s light is partly blocked in the upper left of the photo to the right, cropped slightly to post here.

You can read the paper here [pdf]. The star itself, though similar in mass to the Sun, is thought to be only seventeen million years old.

But the system, dubbed TYC 8998-760-1, is nothing like our solar system. One of the star’s companions straddles the line that defines planets, with a mass 14 times Jupiter’s; the other has a mass of six Jupiters. Both orbit far from the star, about 160 and 320 times the average distance between Earth and the Sun. That puts them more than four times farther out than Pluto is from the Sun.

The size and distance of these giant planets were why they could be imaged from the ground.

Two super-Earths found orbiting nearby red dwarf star

Worlds without end: Astronomers have detected evidence of two super-Earths orbiting Gliese 887, only 11 light years away and the brightest red dwarf star in the night sky.

They used a technique known as “Doppler wobble”, which enables them to measure the tiny back and forth wobbles of the star caused by the gravitational pull of the planets. The regular signals correspond to orbits of just 9.3 and 21.8 days, indicating two super-Earths – Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c – both larger than the Earth yet moving rapidly, much faster even than Mercury. Scientists estimate the temperature of Gliese 887c to be around 70oC.

Because Gliese 887 is a very constant star, not very active, and with relatively few strong flares, they think these planets have a chance of retaining their atmospheres.

Be aware that these are like most exoplanets only candidate exoplanets. Until their existence is confirmed by other researchers, it is possible the detection is a false one.

A host of new solar systems

A gallery of baby solar systems

Worlds without end: Astronomers this month released a large collection of images taken during the past four years by the Gemini South Telescope in Chile of young stars that also have debris disks and are likely solar systems in the process of forming.

The image to the right, reduced slightly to post here, is only a sampling of the 26 disk systems found out of 104 young stars photographed. Go to the link to see some higher resolution examples.

Of the 26 images of debris disks obtained by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), 25 had “holes” around the central star that likely were created by planets sweeping up rocks and dust. Seven of the 26 were previously unknown; earlier images of the other 19 were not as sharp as those from GPI and often didn’t have the resolution to detect an inner hole. The survey doubles the number of debris disks imaged at such high resolution.

“One of the things we found is that these so-called disks are really rings with inner clearings,” said Esposito, who is also a researcher at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. “GPI had a clear view of the inner regions close to the star, whereas in the past, observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and older instruments from the ground couldn’t see close enough to the star to see the hole around it.”

The data strongly confirms most theories about planet formation in these debris disks, as one of the youngest stars did not have any gaps in its disk, suggesting no larger bodies had yet formed to clear out a region.

Astronomers claim discovery of six exomoons

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers are now claiming they have detected evidence of the existence of six exomoons orbiting different stars with transiting exoplanets.

“These exomoon candidates are so small that they can’t be seen from their own transits. Rather, their presence is given away by their gravitational influence on their parent planet,” Wiegert said.

If an exoplanet orbits its star undisturbed, the transits it produces occur precisely at fixed intervals.

But for some exoplanets, the timing of the transits is variable, sometimes occurring several minutes early or late. Such transit timing variations – known as TTVs – indicate the gravity of another body. That could mean an exomoon or another planet in the system is? affecting the transiting planet.

What they have basically done is applied the technique used to identify exoplanet candidates when the planet does NOT transit the star (the wobble caused by gravity and indicated by spectral changes), and looked to see if they can see the same variations in these exoplanets.

This is fun stuff, but it is so uncertain as to be almost laughable. If you read the press release closely, you will discover that their work has been submitted for publication, but has not yet been even peer reviewed.

Their concept is good, but I would not pay much attention to these “results.”

Exoplanet in Earth-like orbit circling Sun-type star

Worlds without end: Astronomers have found evidence suggesting the existence of an exoplanet about twice as massive as the Earth and orbiting a solar-twin star in an orbit almost the same as the Earth’s.

The star, Kepler-160, is about 3,000 light years away, and had previously discovered to have two exoplanets.

“Our analysis suggests that Kepler-160 is orbited not by two but by a total of four planets,” Heller summarizes the new study. One of the two planets that Heller and his colleagues found is Kepler-160d, the previously suspected planet responsible for the distorted orbit of Kepler-160c. Kepler-160d does not show any transits in the light curve of the star and so it has been confirmed indirectly. The other planet, formally a planet candidate, is KOI-456.04, probably a transiting planet with a radius of 1.9 Earth radii and an orbital period of 378 days. Given its Sun-like host star, the very Earth-like orbital period results in a very Earth-like insolation from the star – both in terms of the amount of the light received and in terms of the light color. Light from Kepler-160 is visible light very much like sunlight. All things considered, KOI-456.04 sits in a region of the stellar habitable zone – the distance range around a star admitting liquid surface water on an Earth-like planet – that is comparable to the Earth’s position around the Sun.

“KOI-456.01 is relatively large compared to many other planets that are considered potentially habitable. But it’s the combination of this less-than-double the size of the Earth planet and its solar type host star that make it so special and familiar,” Heller clarifies. As a consequence, the surface conditions on KOI-456.04 could be similar to those known on Earth, provided its atmosphere is not too massive and non-Earth-like. The amount of light received from its host star is about 93 percent of the sunlight received on Earth. If KOI-456.04 has a mostly inert atmosphere with a mild Earth-like greenhouse effect, then its surface temperature would be +5 degrees Celsius on average, which is about ten degrees lower than the Earth’s mean global temperature.

These results have many uncertainties, so we should not be surprised if further research produces significant revisions in these conclusions. Nonetheless, the number of Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars in orbits like the Earth’s continues to rise.

Second exoplanet confirmed orbiting Proxima Centauri

Worlds without end: Using archived Hubble data, astronomers have now independently confirmed the existence of a second exoplanet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

Dubbed Proxima c, this is not the same Earth-sized exoplanet confirmed to orbit the star last week. That planet, Proxima b, orbits close to the star every 11.2 days. The new planet is much farther out.

Benedict found a planet with an orbital period of about 1,907 days buried in the 25-year-old Hubble data. This was an independent confirmation of the existence of Proxima Centauri c.

Shortly afterward, a team led by Raffaele Gratton of INAF published images of the planet at several points along its orbit that they had made with the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Benedict then combined the findings of all three studies: his own Hubble astrometry, Damasso’s radial velocity studies, and Gratton’s images to greatly refine the mass of Proxima Centauri c. He found that the planet is about 7 times as massive as Earth.

Though I am unaware of any hints of additional planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, the presence of two strongly implies the likelihood of more.

New observations confirm Earth-like planet orbiting nearest star

Worlds without end: New observations have confirmed the existence of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, only 4.2 light years away..

The planet, Proxima b, is estimated to have a mass 1.17 of Earth’s, and orbit the star every 11.2 days. Based on that orbit, the planet is also in the star’s habitable zone. Whether there is life there however remains unknown.

Although Proxima b is about 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it receives comparable energy, so that its surface temperature could mean that water (if there is any) is in liquid form in places and might, therefore, harbour life.

Having said that, although Proxima b is an ideal candidate for biomarker research, there is still a long way to go before we can suggest that life has been able to develop on its surface. In fact, the Proxima star is an active red dwarf that bombards its planet with X rays, receiving about 400 times more than the Earth. “Is there an atmosphere that protects the planet from these deadly rays?” asks Christophe Lovis, a researcher in UNIGE’s Astronomy Department and responsible for ESPRESSO’s scientific performance and data processing. “And if this atmosphere exists, does it contain the chemical elements that promote the development of life (oxygen, for example)? How long have these favourable conditions existed? We’re going to tackle all these questions.

The research data also suggests there might be another planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri, though this conclusion is very preliminary.

First exoplanet imaged was nothing more than a debris cloud

The uncertainty of science: What had originally been thought to be the first image ever taken of an exoplanet has now turned out to be only the fading and expanding cloud of debris, left over from a collusion.

The object, called Fomalhaut b, was first announced in 2008, based on data taken in 2004 and 2006. It was clearly visible in several years of Hubble observations that revealed it was a moving dot. Until then, evidence for exoplanets had mostly been inferred through indirect detection methods, such as subtle back-and-forth stellar wobbles, and shadows from planets passing in front of their stars.

Unlike other directly imaged exoplanets, however, nagging puzzles arose with Fomalhaut b early on. The object was unusually bright in visible light, but did not have any detectable infrared heat signature. Astronomers conjectured that the added brightness came from a huge shell or ring of dust encircling the planet that may possibly have been collision-related. The orbit of Fomalhaut b also appeared unusual, possibly very eccentric. “Our study, which analyzed all available archival Hubble data on Fomalhaut revealed several characteristics that together paint a picture that the planet-sized object may never have existed in the first place,” said Gáspár.

The team emphasizes that the final nail in the coffin came when their data analysis of Hubble images taken in 2014 showed the object had vanished, to their disbelief. Adding to the mystery, earlier images showed the object to continuously fade over time, they say. “Clearly, Fomalhaut b was doing things a bona fide planet should not be doing,” said Gáspár.

The interpretation is that Fomalhaut b is slowly expanding from the smashup that blasted a dissipating dust cloud into space. Taking into account all available data, Gáspár and Rieke think the collision occurred not too long prior to the first observations taken in 2004. By now the debris cloud, consisting of dust particles around 1 micron (1/50th the diameter of a human hair), is below Hubble’s detection limit. The dust cloud is estimated to have expanded by now to a size larger than the orbit of Earth around our Sun.

This is not the first exoplanet that astronauts thought they had imaged, only to find out later that it was no such thing.

Remember this when next you hear or read some scientist telling you they are certain about their results, or that the science is “settled.” Unless you can get close enough to get a real picture in high resolution, or have tons of data from many different sources over a considerable period of time, and conclusions must always be subject to skepticism

Earth-sized exoplanet in habitable zone found in old Kepler data

A review of the data produced by the space telescope Kepler, now retired, has discovered an exoplanet about the same size as Earth and also located in the habitable zone that had been missed previously by software.

Scientists discovered this planet, called Kepler-1649c, when looking through old observations from Kepler, which the agency retired in 2018. While previous searches with a computer algorithm misidentified it, researchers reviewing Kepler data took a second look at the signature and recognized it as a planet. Out of all the exoplanets found by Kepler, this distant world – located 300 light-years from Earth – is most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature.

This newly revealed world is only 1.06 times larger than our own planet. Also, the amount of starlight it receives from its host star is 75% of the amount of light Earth receives from our Sun – meaning the exoplanet’s temperature may be similar to our planet’s as well. But unlike Earth, it orbits a red dwarf. Though none have been observed in this system, this type of star is known for stellar flare-ups that may make a planet’s environment challenging for any potential life.

A number of Earth-like planets have been found around red dwarf stars. Whether life could evolve in such places is entirely unknown. Red dwarfs are small, and would have likely formed in a nebula cloud with a dearth of many elements and materials needed for life. Moreover, because they are also so dim, the habitable zone is very near the star, meaning that, as the article mentions, strong flares are more dangerous.

At the same time, red dwarfs are the most common star, and the most long-lived, capable of burning for tens of billions of years. With enough time and numbers anything is still possible.

An exoplanet where it rains iron

Astronomers have discovered an exoplanet 640 light years away hot enough for iron to be vapor in the atmosphere and to condense out as rain.

The high-resolution spectrum reveals lots of iron vapor within the sliver of atmosphere undergoing the transition from day to night. However, this iron vapor signature is missing from the sliver of atmosphere transitioning from night to day. The astronomers think this happens because strong winds push iron vapor to the nightside, where it cools and condenses into clouds.

“This planet has a twilight zone at a temperature close to the iron condensation temperature,” Ehrenreich explains, “so the change in atmospheric composition (with iron vs. without iron) is occurring right where we are able to observe.”

Because the planet is a gas giant, there’s no surface onto which the droplets can fall, says coauthor Nuno Santos (University of Porto, Portugal). But the planet’s gravity likely pulls the clouds downward, enveloping the nightside in iron fog. The global winds then push the clouds and fog onto the dayside, where the vaporization-condensation cycle repeats again.

Very exotic, and alien, and I guarantee it is probably far more alien than we so far can guess.

You can find out more in this second more detailed article.

Review of Kepler data uncovers seventeen more possible exoplanets

Worlds without end: In reviewing the entire Kepler database of 200,000 stars, scientists have found seventeen more candidate exoplanets, including one only 1.5 times the mass of the Earth that is also in the habitable zone.

From the paper’s abstract:

We present the results of an independent search of all ~200,000 stars observed over the four year Kepler mission (Q1–Q17) for multiplanet systems, using a three-transit minimum detection criterion to search orbital periods up to hundreds of days. We incorporate both automated and manual triage, and provide estimates of the completeness and reliability of our vetting pipeline. Our search returned 17 planet candidates (PCs) in addition to thousands of known Kepler Objects of Interest (KOIs), with a 98.8% recovery rate of already confirmed planets. We highlight the discovery of one candidate, KIC-7340288 b, that is both rocky (radius $\leqslant 1.6{R}_{\oplus }$) and in the Habitable Zone (insolation between 0.25 and 2.2 times the Earth’s insolation). Another candidate is an addition to the already known KOI-4509 system.

I must emphasize that these are candidate exoplanets, meaning their existence has not been confirmed by other observations, and could very well turn out to be false positives.

Still, that this independent review matched the previous list of Kepler candidates within 98.8% means that the list of exoplanet candidates from Kepler is solid and worth further study. With thousands of candidates, however, that further study is likely going to take a very long time. And the backlog will be growing significantly with the many thousands of additional exoplanet candidates expected to be found by TESS.

Successful first light for CHEOPS space telescope

The science team for Europe’s exoplanet-hunting CHEOPS space telescope announced today that the telescope has successfully obtained its first pictures, and that all appears to be working correctly.

Preliminary analysis has shown that the images from CHEOPS are even better than expected. However, better for CHEOPS does not mean sharper as the telescope has been deliberately defocused. This is because spreading the light over many pixels ensures that the spacecraft’s jitter and the pixel-to-pixel variations are smoothed out, allowing for better photometric precision. “The good news is that the actual blurred images received are smoother and more symmetrical than what we expected from measurements performed in the laboratory,” says Benz. High precision is necessary for CHEOPS to observe small changes in the brightness of stars outside our solar system caused by the transit of an exoplanet in front of the star. Since these changes in brightness are proportional to the surface of the transit planet, CHEOPS will be able to measure the size of the planets. “These initial promising analyses are a great relief and also a boost for the team,” continues Benz.

I suspect the planned fuzziness of their images is why the press release did not include them.

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