Tag Archives: exoplanets

NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. “It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star – classified as an ultra-cool dwarf – is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing – transits – of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer’s ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer’s “warm mission,” which began after the spacecraft’s coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/spitzer

For more information on the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit:

https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1

For more information on exoplanets, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/exoplanets

Credits
Source: NASA Solar SystemFelicia Chou / Sean Potter
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1536
felicia.chou@nasa.gov / sean.potter@nasa.gov

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A. Researchers using ALMA have detected gas in the region between two discs in this binary system. This may allow planets to form in the gravitationally perturbed environment of the binary. Half of Sun-like stars are born in binary systems, meaning that these findings will have major consequences for the hunt for exoplanets.

Credit:

ESO/L. Calçada

Planet-forming Lifeline Discovered in a Binary Star System

ALMA Examines Ezekiel-like “Wheel in a Wheel” of Dust and Gas


For the first time, researchers using ALMA have detected a streamer of gas flowing from a massive outer disc toward the inner reaches of a binary star system. This never-before-seen feature may be responsible for sustaining a second, smaller disc of planet-forming material that otherwise would have disappeared long ago. Half of Sun-like stars are born in binary systems, meaning that these findings will have major consequences for the hunt for exoplanets. The results are published in the journal Nature on 30 October 2014.

A research group led by Anne Dutrey from the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Bordeaux, France and CNRS used theAtacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe the distribution of dust and gas in a multiple-star system called GG Tau-A [1]. This object is only a few million years old and lies about 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull).

This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A. Researchers using ALMA have detected gas in the region between two discs in this binary system. This may allow planets to form in the gravitationally perturbed environment of the binary. Half of Sun-like stars are born in binary systems, meaning that these findings will have major consequences for the hunt for exoplanets. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A. Researchers using ALMA have detected gas in the region between two discs in this binary system. This may allow planets to form in the gravitationally perturbed environment of the binary. Half of Sun-like stars are born in binary systems, meaning that these findings will have major consequences for the hunt for exoplanets.
Credit:
ESO/L. Calçada

Like a wheel in a wheel, GG Tau-A contains a large, outer disc encircling the entire system as well as an inner disc around the main central star. This second inner disc has a mass roughly equivalent to that of Jupiter. Its presence has been an intriguing mystery for astronomers since it is losing material to its central star at a rate that should have depleted it long ago.

While observing these structures with ALMA, the team made the exciting discovery of gas clumps in the region between the two discs. The new observations suggest that material is being transferred from the outer to the inner disc, creating a sustaining lifeline between the two [2].

Material flowing through the cavity was predicted by computer simulations but has not been imaged before. Detecting these clumps indicates that material is moving between the discs, allowing one to feed off the other,” explains Dutrey. “These observations demonstrate that material from the outer disc can sustain the inner disc for a long time. This has major consequences for potential planet formation.”

Planets are born from the material left over from star birth. This is a slow process, meaning that an enduring disc is a prerequisite for planet formation. If the feeding process into the inner disc now seen with ALMA occurs in other multiple-star systems the findings introduce a vast number of new potential locations to find exoplanets in the future.

The first phase of exoplanet searches was directed at single-host stars like the Sun [3]. More recently it has been shown that a large fraction of giant planets orbit binary-star systems. Now, researchers have begun to take an even closer look and investigate the possibility of planets orbiting the individual stars of multiple-star systems. The new discovery supports the possible existence of such planets, giving exoplanet discoverers new happy hunting grounds.

Emmanuel Di Folco, co-author of the paper, concludes: “Almost half the Sun-like stars were born in binary systems. This means that we have found a mechanism to sustain planet formation that applies to a significant number of stars in the Milky Way. Our observations are a big step forward in truly understanding planet formation.

Notes

[1] GG Tau-A is part of a more complex multiple-star system called GG Tauri. Recent observations of GG Tau-A using the VLTI have revealed that one of the stars — GG Tau Ab, the one not surrounded by a disc — is itself a close binary, consisting of GG Tau-Ab1 and GG Tau-Ab2. This introduced a fifth component to the GG Tau system.

[2] An earlier result with ALMA showed an example of a single star with material flowing inwards from the outer part of its disc.

[3] Because orbits in binary stars are more complex and less stable, it was believed that forming planets in these systems would be more challenging than around single stars.

Source: ESO