Astronomers using the HARPS planet-hunting machine at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have made the first-ever direct detection of the spectrum of visible light reflected off an exoplanet. These observations also revealed new properties of this famous object, the first exoplanet ever discovered around a normal star: 51 Pegasi b. The result promises an exciting future for this technique, particularly with the advent of next generation instruments, such as ESPRESSO, on the VLT, and future telescopes, such as the E-ELT.
The exoplanet 51 Pegasi b  lies some 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus. It was discovered in 1995 and will forever be remembered as the first confirmed exoplanet to be found orbiting an ordinary star like the Sun . It is also regarded as the archetypal hot Jupiter — a class of planets now known to be relatively commonplace, which are similar in size and mass to Jupiter, but orbit much closer to their parent stars.
Since that landmark discovery, more than 1900 exoplanets in 1200 planetary systems have been confirmed, but, in the year of the twentieth anniversary of its discovery, 51 Pegasi b returns to the ring once more to provide another advance in exoplanet studies.
The team that made this new detection was led by Jorge Martins from the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) and the Universidade do Porto, Portugal, who is currently a PhD student at ESO in Chile. They used the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Currently, the most widely used method to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere is to observe the host star’s spectrum as it is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere during transit — a technique known as transmission spectroscopy. An alternative approach is to observe the system when the star passes in front of the planet, which primarily provides information about the exoplanet’s temperature.
The new technique does not depend on finding a planetary transit, and so can potentially be used to study many more exoplanets. It allows the planetary spectrum to be directly detected in visible light, which means that different characteristics of the planet that are inaccessible to other techniques can be inferred.
The host star’s spectrum is used as a template to guide a search for a similar signature of light that is expected to be reflected off the planet as it describes its orbit. This is an exceedingly difficult task as planets are incredibly dim in comparison to their dazzling parent stars.
The signal from the planet is also easily swamped by other tiny effects and sources of noise . In the face of such adversity, the success of the technique when applied to the HARPS data collected on 51 Pegasi b provides an extremely valuable proof of concept.
Jorge Martins explains: “This type of detection technique is of great scientific importance, as it allows us to measure the planet’s real mass and orbital inclination, which is essential to more fully understand the system. It also allows us to estimate the planet’s reflectivity, or albedo, which can be used to infer the composition of both the planet’s surface and atmosphere.”
51 Pegasi b was found to have a mass about half that of Jupiter’s and an orbit with an inclination of about nine degrees to the direction to the Earth . The planet also seems to be larger than Jupiter in diameter and to be highly reflective. These are typical properties for a hot Jupiter that is very close to its parent star and exposed to intense starlight.
HARPS was essential to the team’s work, but the fact that the result was obtained using the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, which has a limited range of application with this technique, is exciting news for astronomers. Existing equipment like this will be surpassed by much more advanced instruments on larger telescopes, such as ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the future European Extremely Large Telescope .
“We are now eagerly awaiting first light of the ESPRESSO spectrograph on the VLT so that we can do more detailed studies of this and other planetary systems,” concludes Nuno Santos, of the IA and Universidade do Porto, who is a co-author of the new paper.
 Both 51 Pegasi b and its host star 51 Pegasi are among the objects available for public naming in the IAU’s NameExoWorlds contest.
 Two earlier planetary objects were detected orbiting in the extreme environment of a pulsar.
 The challenge is similar to trying to study the faint glimmer reflected off a tiny insect flying around a distant and brilliant light.
 This means that the planet’s orbit is close to being edge on as seen from Earth, although this is not close enough for transits to take place.
 ESPRESSO on the VLT, and later even more powerful instruments on much larger telescopes such as the E-ELT, will allow for a significant increase in precision and collecting power, aiding the detection of smaller exoplanets, while providing an increase in detail in the data for planets similar to 51 Pegasi b.
New maps from ESA’s Planck satellite uncover the ‘polarised’ light from the early Universe across the entire sky, revealing that the first stars formed much later than previously thought.
The history of our Universe is a 13.8 billion-year tale that scientists endeavour to read by studying the planets, asteroids, comets and other objects in our Solar System, and gathering light emitted by distant stars, galaxies and the matter spread between them.
A major source of information used to piece together this story is the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, the fossil light resulting from a time when the Universe was hot and dense, only 380 000 years after the Big Bang.
Thanks to the expansion of the Universe, we see this light today covering the whole sky at microwave wavelengths.
Between 2009 and 2013, Planck surveyed the sky to study this ancient light in unprecedented detail. Tiny differences in the background’s temperature trace regions of slightly different density in the early cosmos, representing the seeds of all future structure, the stars and galaxies of today.
Scientists from the Planck collaboration have published the results from the analysis of these data in a large number of scientific papers over the past two years, confirming the standard cosmological picture of our Universe with ever greater accuracy.
“But there is more: the CMB carries additional clues about our cosmic history that are encoded in its ‘polarisation’,” explains Jan Tauber, ESA’s Planck project scientist.
“Planck has measured this signal for the first time at high resolution over the entire sky, producing the unique maps released today.”
Light is polarised when it vibrates in a preferred direction, something that may arise as a result of photons – the particles of light – bouncing off other particles. This is exactly what happened when the CMB originated in the early Universe.
Initially, photons were trapped in a hot, dense soup of particles that, by the time the Universe was a few seconds old, consisted mainly of electrons, protons and neutrinos. Owing to the high density, electrons and photons collided with one another so frequently that light could not travel any significant distant before bumping into another electron, making the early Universe extremely ‘foggy’.
Slowly but surely, as the cosmos expanded and cooled, photons and the other particles grew farther apart, and collisions became less frequent.
This had two consequences: electrons and protons could finally combine and form neutral atoms without them being torn apart again by an incoming photon, and photons had enough room to travel, being no longer trapped in the cosmic fog.
Once freed from the fog, the light was set on its cosmic journey that would take it all the way to the present day, where telescopes like Planck detect it as the CMB. But the light also retains a memory of its last encounter with the electrons, captured in its polarisation.
“The polarisation of the CMB also shows minuscule fluctuations from one place to another across the sky: like the temperature fluctuations, these reflect the state of the cosmos at the time when light and matter parted company,” says François Bouchet of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, France.
“This provides a powerful tool to estimate in a new and independent way parameters such as the age of the Universe, its rate of expansion and its essential composition of normal matter, dark matter and dark energy.”
Planck’s polarisation data confirm the details of the standard cosmological picture determined from its measurement of the CMB temperature fluctuations, but add an important new answer to a fundamental question: when were the first stars born?
“After the CMB was released, the Universe was still very different from the one we live in today, and it took a long time until the first stars were able to form,” explains Marco Bersanelli of Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy.
“Planck’s observations of the CMB polarisation now tell us that these ‘Dark Ages’ ended some 550 million years after the Big Bang – more than 100 million years later than previously thought.
“While these 100 million years may seem negligible compared to the Universe’s age of almost 14 billion years, they make a significant difference when it comes to the formation of the first stars.”
The Dark Ages ended as the first stars began to shine. And as their light interacted with gas in the Universe, more and more of the atoms were turned back into their constituent particles: electrons and protons.
This key phase in the history of the cosmos is known as the ‘epoch of reionisation’.
The newly liberated electrons were once again able to collide with the light from the CMB, albeit much less frequently now that the Universe had significantly expanded. Nevertheless, just as they had 380 000 years after the Big Bang, these encounters between electrons and photons left a tell-tale imprint on the polarisation of the CMB.
“From our measurements of the most distant galaxies and quasars, we know that the process of reionisation was complete by the time that the Universe was about 900 million years old,” says George Efstathiou of the University of Cambridge, UK.
“But, at the moment, it is only with the CMB data that we can learn when this process began.”
Planck’s new results are critical, because previous studies of the CMB polarisation seemed to point towards an earlier dawn of the first stars, placing the beginning of reionisation about 450 million years after the Big Bang.
This posed a problem. Very deep images of the sky from the NASA–ESA Hubble Space Telescope have provided a census of the earliest known galaxies in the Universe, which started forming perhaps 300–400 million years after the Big Bang.
However, these would not have been powerful enough to succeed at ending the Dark Ages within 450 million years.
“In that case, we would have needed additional, more exotic sources of energy to explain the history of reionisation,” says Professor Efstathiou.
The new evidence from Planck significantly reduces the problem, indicating that reionisation started later than previously believed, and that the earliest stars and galaxies alone might have been enough to drive it.
This later end of the Dark Ages also implies that it might be easier to detect the very first generation of galaxies with the next generation of observatories, including the James Webb Space Telescope.
But the first stars are definitely not the limit. With the new Planck data released today, scientists are also studying the polarisation of foreground emission from gas and dust in the Milky Way to analyse the structure of the Galactic magnetic field.
The data have also enabled new important insights into the early cosmos and its components, including the intriguing dark matter and the elusive neutrinos, as described in papers also released today.
The Planck data have delved into the even earlier history of the cosmos, all the way to inflation – the brief era of accelerated expansion that the Universe underwent when it was a tiny fraction of a second old. As the ultimate probe of this epoch, astronomers are looking for a signature of gravitational waves triggered by inflation and later imprinted on the polarisation of the CMB.
No direct detection of this signal has yet been achieved, as reported last week. However, when combining the newest all-sky Planck data with those latest results, the limits on the amount of primordial gravitational waves are pushed even further down to achieve the best upper limits yet.
“These are only a few highlights from the scrutiny of Planck’s observations of the CMB polarisation, which is revealing the sky and the Universe in a brand new way,” says Jan Tauber.
“This is an incredibly rich data set and the harvest of discoveries has just begun.”
A series of scientific papers describing the new results was published on 5 February and it can be downloaded here.
The new results from Planck are based on the complete surveys of the entire sky, performed between 2009 and 2013. New data, including temperature maps of the CMB at all nine frequencies observed by Planck and polarisation maps at four frequencies (30, 44, 70 and 353 GHz), are also released today.
The three principal scientific leaders of the Planck mission, Nazzareno Mandolesi, Jean-Loup Puget and Jan Tauber, were recently awarded the 2015 EPS Edison Volta Prize for “directing the development of the Planck payload and the analysis of its data, resulting in the refinement of our knowledge of the temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background as a vastly improved tool for doing precision cosmology at unprecedented levels of accuracy, and consolidating our understanding of the very early universe.“
More about Planck
Launched in 2009, Planck was designed to map the sky in nine frequencies using two state-of-the-art instruments: the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI), which includes three frequency bands in the range 30–70 GHz, and the High Frequency Instrument (HFI), which includes six frequency bands in the range 100–857 GHz.
HFI completed its survey in January 2012, while LFI continued to make science observations until 3 October 2013, before being switched off on 19 October 2013. Seven of Planck’s nine frequency channels were equipped with polarisation-sensitive detectors.
The Planck Scientific Collaboration consists of all the scientists who have contributed to the development of the mission, and who participate in the scientific exploitation of the data during the proprietary period.
These scientists are members of one or more of four consortia: the LFI Consortium, the HFI Consortium, the DK-Planck Consortium, and ESA’s Planck Science Office. The two European-led Planck Data Processing Centres are located in Paris, France and Trieste, Italy.
The LFI consortium is led by N. Mandolesi, Università degli Studi di Ferrara, Italy (deputy PI: M. Bersanelli, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy), and was responsible for the development and operation of LFI. The HFI consortium is led by J.L. Puget, Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay (CNRS/Université Paris-Sud), France (deputy PI: F. Bouchet, Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris (CNRS/UPMC), France), and was responsible for the development and operation of HFI.
Since the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe in 1997 by High-Z Supernova Team led by Prof. Brian Schmidt and Adam Rees, and by Supernova Cosmology Project Team led by Prof. Saul Perlmutter, the question of the nature of this expansion and the role of the mysterious dark energy has puzzled the minds of many theoretical and observational physicists/astrophysicists.
Another puzzling question in astronomy comes from the unusual behavior of the stars revolving around the galaxies with higher velocities than expected if we consider the apparent baryonic matter in the galaxy.This has led to many new questions related to something we called the dark matter, another unexplained phenomenon.
New research offers a novel insight into the nature of dark matter and dark energy and what the future of our Universe might be.
Researchers in Portsmouth and Rome have found hints that dark matter, the cosmic scaffolding on which our Universe is built, is being slowly erased, swallowed up by dark energy.
The findings appear in the journal Physical Review Letters, published by the American Physical Society. In the journal cosmologists at the Universities of Portsmouth and Rome, argue that the latest astronomical data favours a dark energy that grows as it interacts with dark matter, and this appears to be slowing the growth of structure in the cosmos.
Professor David Wands, Director of Portsmouth’sInstitute of Cosmology and Gravitation, is one of the research team.
He said: “This study is about the fundamental properties of space-time. On a cosmic scale, this is about our Universe and its fate.
“If the dark energy is growing and dark matter is evaporating we will end up with a big, empty, boring Universe with almost nothing in it.
“Dark matter provides a framework for structures to grow in the Universe. The galaxies we see are built on that scaffolding and what we are seeing here, in these findings, suggests that dark matter is evaporating, slowing that growth of structure.”
Cosmology underwent a paradigm shift in 1998 when researchers announced that the rate at which the Universe was expanding was accelerating. The idea of a constant dark energy throughout space-time (the “cosmological constant”) became the standard model of cosmology, but now the Portsmouth and Rome researchers believe they have found a better description, including energy transfer between dark energy and dark matter.
Research students Valentina Salvatelli and Najla Said from the University of Rome worked in Portsmouth with Dr Marco Bruni and Professor Wands, and with Professor Alessandro Melchiorri in Rome. They examined data from a number of astronomical surveys, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and used the growth of structure revealed by these surveys to test different models of dark energy.
Professor Wands said: “Valentina and Najla spent several months here over the summer looking at the consequences of the latest observations. Much more data is available now than was available in 1998 and it appears that the standard model is no longer sufficient to describe all of the data. We think we’ve found a better model of dark energy.
“Since the late 1990s astronomers have been convinced that something is causing the expansion of our Universe to accelerate. The simplest explanation was that empty space – the vacuum – had an energy density that was a cosmological constant. However there is growing evidence that this simple model cannot explain the full range of astronomical data researchers now have access to; in particular the growth of cosmic structure, galaxies and clusters of galaxies, seems to be slower than expected.”
Professor Dragan Huterer,of the University of Michigan, has read the research and said scientists need to take notice of the findings.
He said: “The paper does look very interesting. Any time there is a new development in the dark energy sector we need to take notice since so little is understood about it. I would not say, however, that I am surprised at the results, that they come out different than in the simplest model with no interactions. We’ve known for some months now that there is some problem in all data fitting perfectly to the standard simplest model.”
We are conducting a survey on the topic of “Big Science, Funding and Commercialization”. The subject is aimed at the big science research and commercialization in the Pakistani context.
Please take part in the survey and encourage your friends to take part as well (especially working in academia, tech industry or government sector) —————————————————-———————— Introduction:
In today’s economic realities, the question of funding big science projects is often discussed in political circles, academia, industry, media and other parts of society. On one hand we see people take interest in big questions related to our universe like it’s origin, accelerated expansion or what gives mass to the particles? But on the other hand there are many critics who question spending so much money on doing big science especially when there is so much poverty in many parts of the world. The idea is to find some solution and one possible way is to use spin-off technologies and knowledge base for commercial purposes in order to fund the big science projects without relying heavily on tax payers’ money.