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ALMA has observed stars like the Sun at a very early stage in their formation and found traces of methyl isocyanate — a chemical building block of life. This is the first ever detection of this prebiotic molecule towards a solar-type protostar, the sort from which our Solar System evolved. The discovery could help astronomers understand how life arose on Earth.

This image shows the spectacular region of star formation where methyl isocyanate was found. The insert shows the molecular structure of this chemical.

Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/L. Calçada

ALMA Finds Ingredient of Life Around Infant Sun-like Stars

ALMA has observed stars like the Sun at a very early stage in their formation and found traces of methyl isocyanate — a chemical building block of life. This is the first ever detection of this prebiotic molecule towards solar-type protostars, the sort from which our Solar System evolved. The discovery could help astronomers understand how life arose on Earth.

Two teams of astronomers have harnessed the power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to detect the prebiotic complex organic molecule methyl isocyanate [1] in the multiple star system IRAS 16293-2422. One team was co-led by Rafael Martín-Doménech at the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, Spain, and Víctor M. Rivilla, at the INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri in Florence, Italy; and the other by Niels Ligterink at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and Audrey Coutens at University College London, United Kingdom.

ALMA has observed stars like the Sun at a very early stage in their formation and found traces of methyl isocyanate — a chemical building block of life. This is the first ever detection of this prebiotic molecule towards a solar-type protostar, the sort from which our Solar System evolved. The discovery could help astronomers understand how life arose on Earth. This image shows the spectacular region of star formation where methyl isocyanate was found. The insert shows the molecular structure of this chemical. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/L. Calçada
ALMA has observed stars like the Sun at a very early stage in their formation and found traces of methyl isocyanate — a chemical building block of life. This is the first ever detection of this prebiotic molecule towards a solar-type protostar, the sort from which our Solar System evolved. The discovery could help astronomers understand how life arose on Earth.
This image shows the spectacular region of star formation where methyl isocyanate was found. The insert shows the molecular structure of this chemical.
Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/L. Calçada

“This star system seems to keep on giving! Following the discovery of sugars, we’ve now found methyl isocyanate. This family of organic molecules is involved in the synthesis of peptides and amino acids, which, in the form of proteins, are the biological basis for life as we know it,” explain Niels Ligterink and Audrey Coutens [2].

ALMA’s capabilities allowed both teams to observe the molecule at several different and characteristic wavelengths across the radio spectrum [3]. They found the unique chemical fingerprints located in the warm, dense inner regions of the cocoon of dust and gas surrounding young stars in their earliest stages of evolution. Each team identified and isolated the signatures of the complex organic molecule methyl isocyanate [4]. They then followed this up with computer chemical modelling and laboratory experiments to refine our understanding of the molecule’s origin [5].

IRAS 16293-2422 is a multiple system of very young stars, around 400 light-years away in a large star-forming region called Rho Ophiuchi in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). The new results from ALMA show that methyl isocyanate gas surrounds each of these young stars.

Earth and the other planets in our Solar System formed from the material left over after the formation of the Sun. Studying solar-type protostars can therefore open a window to the past for astronomers and allow them to observe conditions similar to those that led to the formation of our Solar System over 4.5 billion years ago.

Rafael Martín-Doménech and Víctor M. Rivilla, lead authors of one of the papers, comment: “We are particularly excited about the result because these protostars are very similar to the Sun at the beginning of its lifetime, with the sort of conditions that are well suited for Earth-sized planets to form. By finding prebiotic molecules in this study, we may now have another piece of the puzzle in understanding how life came about on our planet.”

Niels Ligterink is delighted with the supporting laboratory results: “Besides detecting molecules we also want to understand how they are formed. Our laboratory experiments show that methyl isocyanate can indeed be produced on icy particles under very cold conditions that are similar to those in interstellar space This implies that this molecule — and thus the basis for peptide bonds — is indeed likely to be present near most new young solar-type stars.”

Notes
[1] A complex organic molecule is defined in astrochemistry as consisting of six or more atoms, where at least one of the atoms is carbon. Methyl isocyanate contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the chemical configuration CH3NCO. This very toxic substance was the main cause of death following the tragic Bhopal industrial accident in 1984.

[2] The system was previously studied by ALMA in 2012 and found to contain molecules of the simple sugar glycolaldehyde, another ingredient for life.

[3] The team led by Rafael Martín-Doménech used new and archive data of the protostar taken across a large range of wavelengths across ALMA’s receiver Bands 3, 4 and 6. Niels Ligterink and his colleagues used data from the ALMA Protostellar Interferometric Line Survey (PILS), which aims to chart the chemical complexity of IRAS 16293-2422 by imaging the full wavelength range covered by ALMA’s Band 7 on very small scales, equivalent to the size of our Solar System.

[4] The teams carried out spectrographic analysis of the protostar’s light to determine the chemical constituents. The amount of methyl isocyanate they detected — the abundance — with respect to molecular hydrogen and other tracers is comparable to previous detections around two high-mass protostars (i.e. within the massive hot molecular cores of Orion KL and Sagittarius B2 North).

[5] Martín-Doménech’s team chemically modelled gas-grain formation of methyl isocyanate. The observed amount of the molecule could be explained by chemistry on the surface of dust grains in space, followed by chemical reactions in the gas phase. Moreover, Ligterink’s team demonstrated that the molecule can be formed at extremely cold interstellar temperatures, down to 15 Kelvin (–258 degrees Celsius), using cryogenic ultra-high-vacuum experiments in their laboratory in Leiden.

More information
This research was presented in two papers: “First Detection of Methyl Isocyanate (CH3NCO) in a solar-type Protostar” by R. Martín-Doménech et al. and “The ALMA-PILS survey: Detection of CH3NCO toward the low-mass protostar IRAS 16293-2422 and laboratory constraints on its formation”, by N. F. W. Ligterink et al.. Both papers will appear in the same issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

One team is composed of: R. Martín-Doménech (Centro de Astrobiología, Spain), V. M. Rivilla (INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Italy), I. Jiménez-Serra (Queen Mary University of London, UK), D. Quénard (Queen Mary University of London, UK), L. Testi (INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Italy; ESO, Garching, Germany; Excellence Cluster “Universe”, Germany) and J. Martín-Pintado (Centro de Astrobiología, Spain).

The other team is composed of: N. F. W. Ligterink (Sackler Laboratory for Astrophysics, Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands), A. Coutens (University College London, UK), V. Kofman (Sackler Laboratory for Astrophysics, The Netherlands), H. S. P. Müller (Universität zu Köln, Germany), R. T. Garrod (University of Virginia, USA), H. Calcutt (Niels Bohr Institute & Natural History Museum, Denmark), S. F. Wampfler (Center for Space and Habitability, Switzerland), J. K. Jørgensen (Niels Bohr Institute & Natural History Museum, Denmark), H. Linnartz (Sackler Laboratory for Astrophysics, The Netherlands) and E. F. van Dishoeck (Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands; Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik, Germany).

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Source: ESO

Most distant object ever observed by ALMA sheds Light on the First Stars

Ancient Stardust Sheds Light on the First Stars

Most distant object ever observed by ALMA

 


 

Astronomers have used ALMA to detect a huge mass of glowing stardust in a galaxy seen when the Universe was only four percent of its present age. This galaxy was observed shortly after its formation and is the most distant galaxy in which dust has been detected. This observation is also the most distant detection of oxygen in the Universe. These new results provide brand-new insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars.

This image is dominated by a spectacular view of the rich galaxy cluster Abell 2744 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. But, far beyond this cluster, and seen when the Universe was only about 600 million years old, is a very faint galaxy called A2744_YD4. New observations of this galaxy with ALMA, shown in red, have demonstrated that it is rich in dust. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA, ESA, ESO and D. Coe (STScI)/J. Merten (Heidelberg/Bologna)
This image is dominated by a spectacular view of the rich galaxy cluster Abell 2744 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. But, far beyond this cluster, and seen when the Universe was only about 600 million years old, is a very faint galaxy called A2744_YD4. New observations of this galaxy with ALMA, shown in red, have demonstrated that it is rich in dust.
Credit:
ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA, ESA, ESO and D. Coe (STScI)/J. Merten (Heidelberg/Bologna)

An international team of astronomers, led by Nicolas Laporte of University College London, have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe A2744_YD4, the youngest and most remote galaxy ever seen by ALMA. They were surprised to find that this youthful galaxy contained an abundance of interstellar dust — dust formed by the deaths of an earlier generation of stars.

Follow-up observations using the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope confirmed the enormous distance to A2744_YD4. The galaxy appears to us as it was when the Universe was only 600 million years old, during the period when the first stars and galaxies were forming [1].

Not only is A2744_YD4 the most distant galaxy yet observed by ALMA,” comments Nicolas Laporte, “but the detection of so much dust indicates early supernovae must have already polluted this galaxy.”

Cosmic dust is mainly composed of silicon, carbon and aluminium, in grains as small as a millionth of a centimetre across. The chemical elements in these grains are forged inside stars and are scattered across the cosmos when the stars die, most spectacularly in supernova explosions, the final fate of short-lived, massive stars. Today, this dust is plentiful and is a key building block in the formation of stars, planets and complex molecules; but in the early Universe — before the first generations of stars died out — it was scarce.

The observations of the dusty galaxy A2744_YD4 were made possible because this galaxy lies behind a massive galaxy cluster called Abell 2744 [2]. Because of a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, the cluster acted like a giant cosmic “telescope” to magnify the more distant A2744_YD4 by about 1.8 times, allowing the team to peer far back into the early Universe.

The ALMA observations also detected the glowing emission of ionised oxygen from A2744_YD4. This is the most distant, and hence earliest, detection of oxygen in the Universe, surpassing another ALMA result from 2016.

The detection of dust in the early Universe provides new information on when the first supernovae exploded and hence the time when the first hot stars bathed the Universe in light. Determining the timing of this “cosmic dawn” is one of the holy grails of modern astronomy, and it can be indirectly probed through the study of early interstellar dust.

The team estimates that A2744_YD4 contained an amount of dust equivalent to 6 million times the mass of our Sun, while the galaxy’s total stellar mass — the mass of all its stars — was 2 billion times the mass of our Sun. The team also measured the rate of star formation in A2744_YD4 and found that stars are forming at a rate of 20 solar masses per year — compared to just one solar mass per year in the Milky Way [3].

This rate is not unusual for such a distant galaxy, but it does shed light on how quickly the dust in A2744_YD4 formed,” explains Richard Ellis (ESO and University College London), a co-author of the study. “Remarkably, the required time is only about 200 million years — so we are witnessing this galaxy shortly after its formation.”

This means that significant star formation began approximately 200 million years before the epoch at which the galaxy is being observed. This provides a great opportunity for ALMA to help study the era when the first stars and galaxies “switched on” — the earliest epoch yet probed. Our Sun, our planet and our existence are the products — 13 billion years later — of this first generation of stars. By studying their formation, lives and deaths, we are exploring our origins.

With ALMA, the prospects for performing deeper and more extensive observations of similar galaxies at these early times are very promising,” says Ellis.

And Laporte concludes: “Further measurements of this kind offer the exciting prospect of tracing early star formation and the creation of the heavier chemical elements even further back into the early Universe.

Notes

[1] This time corresponds to a redshift of z=8.38, during the epoch of reionisation.

[2] Abell 2744 is a massive object, lying 3.5 billion light-years away (redshift 0.308), that is thought to be the result of four smaller galaxy clusters colliding. It has been nicknamed Pandora’s Cluster because of the many strange and different phenomena that were unleashed by the huge collision that occurred over a period of about 350 million years. The galaxies only make up five percent of the cluster’s mass, while dark matter makes up seventy-five percent, providing the massive gravitational influence necessary to bend and magnify the light of background galaxies. The remaining twenty percent of the total mass is thought to be in the form of hot gas.

[3] This rate means that the total mass of the stars formed every year is equivalent to 20 times the mass of the Sun.

More information

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Dust in the Reionization Era: ALMA Observations of a z =8.38 Gravitationally-Lensed Galaxy” by Laporte et al., to appear in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The team is composed of N. Laporte (University College London, UK), R. S. Ellis (University College London, UK; ESO, Garching, Germany), F. Boone (Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP), Toulouse, France), F. E. Bauer (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Instituto de Astrofísica, Santiago, Chile), D. Quénard (Queen Mary University of London, London, UK), G. Roberts-Borsani (University College London, UK), R. Pelló (Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP), Toulouse, France), I. Pérez-Fournon (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain; Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain), and A. Streblyanska (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain; Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain).

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Source: ESO

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 a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known as HD 131399Ab and appears at the lower-left of the picture.

Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one of very few directly-imaged planets. With a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and having an estimated mass of four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.

Credit:
ESO/L. Calçada

Stranger than Tatooine, a Surprising Planet with Three Suns

This artist's impression shows a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known as HD 131399Ab and appears at the lower-left of the picture. Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one of very few directly-imaged planets. With a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and having an estimated mass of four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known as HD 131399Ab and appears at the lower-left of the picture.
Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one of very few directly-imaged planets. With a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and having an estimated mass of four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.
Credit:
ESO/L. Calçada

A team of astronomers have used the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to image the first planet ever found in a wide orbit inside a triple-star system. The orbit of such a planet had been expected to be unstable, probably resulting in the planet being quickly ejected from the system. But somehow this one survives. This unexpected observation suggests that such systems may actually be more common than previously thought. The results will be published online in the journal Science on 7 July 2016.

Luke Skywalker‘s home planet, Tatooine, in the Star Wars saga, was a strange world with two suns in the sky, but astronomers have now found a planet in an even more exotic system, where an observer would either experience constant daylight or enjoy triple sunrises and sunsets each day, depending on the seasons, which last longer than human lifetimes.

This world has been discovered by a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona, USA, using direct imaging at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The planet, HD 131399Ab [1], is unlike any other known world — its orbit around the brightest of the three stars is by far the widest known within a multi-star system. Such orbits are often unstable, because of the complex and changing gravitational attraction from the other two stars in the system, and planets in stable orbits were thought to be very unlikely.

Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one of very few directly imaged planets. With a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and an estimated mass of four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.

“HD 131399Ab is one of the few exoplanets that have been directly imaged, and it’s the first one in such an interesting dynamical configuration,” said Daniel Apai, from the University of Arizona, USA, and one of the co-authors of the new paper.

“For about half of the planet’s orbit, which lasts 550 Earth-years, three stars are visible in the sky; the fainter two are always much closer together, and change in apparent separation from the brightest star throughout the year,” adds Kevin Wagner, the paper’s first author and discoverer of HD 131399Ab [2].

Kevin Wagner, who is a PhD student at the University of Arizona, identified the planet among hundreds of candidate planets and led the follow-up observations to verify its nature.

The planet also marks the first discovery of an exoplanet made with the SPHERE instrument on the VLT. SPHERE is sensitive to infrared light, allowing it to detect the heat signatures of young planets, along with sophisticated features correcting for atmospheric disturbances and blocking out the otherwise blinding light of their host stars.

Although repeated and long-term observations will be needed to precisely determine the planet’s trajectory among its host stars, observations and simulations seem to suggest the following scenario: the brightest star is estimated to be eighty percent more massive than the Sun and dubbed HD 131399A, which itself is orbited by the less massive stars, B and C, at about 300 au (one au, or astronomical unit, equals the average distance between the Earth and the Sun). All the while, B and C twirl around each other like a spinning dumbbell, separated by a distance roughly equal to that between the Sun and Saturn (10 au).

In this scenario, planet HD 131399Ab travels around the star A in an orbit with a radius of about 80 au, about twice as large as Pluto’s in the Solar System, and brings the planet to about one third of the separation between star A and the B/C star pair. The authors point out that a range of orbital scenarios is possible, and the verdict on the long-term stability of the system will have to wait for planned follow-up observations that will better constrain the planet’s orbit.

“If the planet was further away from the most massive star in the system, it would be kicked out of the system,” Apai explained. “Our computer simulations have shown that this type of orbit can be stable, but if you change things around just a little bit, it can become unstable very quickly.”

Planets in multi-star systems are of special interest to astronomers and planetary scientists because they provide an example of how the mechanism of planetary formation functions in these more extreme scenarios. While multi-star systems seem exotic to us in our orbit around our solitary star, multi-star systems are in fact just as common as single stars.

“It is not clear how this planet ended up on its wide orbit in this extreme system, and we can’t say yet what this means for our broader understanding of the types of planetary systems, but it shows that there is more variety out there than many would have deemed possible,” concludes Kevin Wagner. “What we do know is that planets in multi-star systems have been studied far less often, but are potentially just as numerous as planets in single-star systems.”

Notes

[1] The three components of the triple star are named HD 131399A, HD 131399B and HD 131399C respectively, in decreasing order of brightness. The planet orbits the brightest star and hence is named HD 131399Ab.

[2] For much of the planet’s year the stars would appear close together in the sky, giving it a familiar night-side and day-side with a unique triple sunset and sunrise each day. As the planet moves along its orbit the stars grow further apart each day, until they reach a point where the setting of one coincides with the rising of the other — at which point the planet is in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years.

The elliptical galaxy NGC 1600, 200 million light-years away — shown in the centre of the image and highlighted in the box —, hosts in its centre one of the biggest supermassive black holes known . Until the discovery of this example, astronomers assumed that such huge black holes could only be found in the centres of massive galaxies at the centre of galaxy clusters. NGC 1600, however, is a rather isolated galaxy.

The image is a composition of a ground based view and observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Credit:
NASA, ESA, Digital Sky Survey 2

NGC 1600′s super massive blackhole discovery puzzles astronomers

Astronomers have uncovered one of the biggest supermassive black holes, with the mass of 17 billion Suns, in an unlikely place: the centre of a galaxy that lies in a quiet backwater of the Universe. The observations, made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Telescope in Hawaii, indicate that these monster objects may be more common than once thought. The results of this study are released in the journal Nature.

The elliptical galaxy NGC 1600, 200 million light-years away — shown in the centre of the image and highlighted in the box —, hosts in its centre one of the biggest supermassive black holes known . Until the discovery of this example, astronomers assumed that such huge black holes could only be found in the centres of massive galaxies at the centre of galaxy clusters. NGC 1600, however, is a rather isolated galaxy. The image is a composition of a ground based view and observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, Digital Sky Survey 2
The elliptical galaxy NGC 1600, 200 million light-years away — shown in the centre of the image and highlighted in the box —, hosts in its centre one of the biggest supermassive black holes known . Until the discovery of this example, astronomers assumed that such huge black holes could only be found in the centres of massive galaxies at the centre of galaxy clusters. NGC 1600, however, is a rather isolated galaxy.
The image is a composition of a ground based view and observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit:
NASA, ESA, Digital Sky Survey 2

Until now, the biggest supermassive black holes — those having more than 10 billion times the mass of our Sun — have only been found at the cores of very large galaxies in the centres of massive galaxy clusters. Now, an international team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a supersized black hole with a mass of 17 billion Suns in the centre of the rather isolated galaxy NGC 1600.

NGC 1600 is an elliptical galaxy which is located not in a cluster of galaxies, but in a small group of about twenty. The group is located 200 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. While finding a gigantic supermassive black hole in a massive galaxy within a cluster of galaxies is to be expected, finding one in an average-sized galaxy group like the one surrounding NGC 1600 is much more surprising.

“Even though we already had hints that the galaxy might host an extreme object in the centre, we were surprised that the black hole in NGC 1600 is ten times more massive than predicted by the mass of the galaxy,” explains lead author of the study Jens Thomas from the Max Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany.

Based on previous Hubble surveys of supermassive black holes, astronomers had discovered a correlation between a black hole’s mass and the mass of its host galaxy’s central bulge of stars: the larger the galaxy bulge, the more massive the black hole is expected to be. “It appears from our finding that this relation does not work so well with extremely massive black holes,” says Thomas. “These monster black holes account for a much larger fraction of the host galaxy’s mass than the previous correlations would suggest.”

Finding this extremely massive black hole in NGC 1600 leads astronomers to ask whether these objects are more common than previously thought. “There are quite a few galaxies the size of NGC 1600 that reside in average-size galaxy groups,” explains co-author Chung-Pei Ma, an astronomer from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, and head of the MASSIVE Survey [1]. “We estimate that these smaller groups are about fifty times more abundant than large, dense galaxy clusters. So the question now is: is this the tip of an iceberg? Maybe there are a lot more monster black holes out there.”

It is assumed that this black hole grew by merging with another supermassive black hole from another galaxy. It may then have continued to grow by gobbling up gas funneled to the core of the galaxy by further galaxy collisions. Thus may also explain why NGC 1600 resides in a sparsely populated region of the Universe and why it is at least three times brighter than its neighbours.

As the supermassive black hole is currently dormant, astronomers were only able to find it and estimate its mass by measuring the velocities of stars close to it, using the Gemini North 8-metre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Using these data the team discovered that stars lying about 3000 light-years from the core are moving as if there had been many more stars in the core in the distant past. This indicates that most of the stars in this region have been kicked out from the centre of the galaxy.

Archival Hubble images, taken with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), support the idea that the two merging supermassive black holes in the distant past gave stars the boot. The NICMOS images revealed that the galaxy’s core is unusually faint, indicating a lack of stars close to the galactic centre. “We estimate that the mass of stars tossed out of the central region of NGC 1600 is equal to 40 billion Suns,” concludes Thomas. “This is comparable to ejecting the entire disc of our Milky Way galaxy.”

Notes
[1] The MASSIVE Survey, which began in 2014, measures the mass of stars, dark matter, and the central black hole of the 100 most massive, nearby galaxies, those larger than 300 billion solar masses and within 350 million light-years of Earth. Among its goals are to find the descendants of luminous quasars that may be sleeping unsuspected in large nearby galaxies and to understand how galaxies form and grow supermassive black holes.

More information
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The study “A 17-billion-solar-mass black hole in a group galaxy with a diffuse core” appeared in the journal Nature.

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of J. Thomas (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany), C.-P. Ma (University of California, Berkeley, USA), N. McConnell (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Canada), J. Greene (Princeton University, USA), J. Blakeslee (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Canada), and R. Janish (University of California, Berkeley, USA)

Source: Space Telescope

BIGHORNS_Sky_avg_SN_integr

Ionospheric effects not detrimental to EoR detection from ground : CAASTRO Research

The Epoch of Reionisation (EoR) is the time in the early Universe when the first stars and galaxies formed and re-ionised the neutral hydrogen. Indirect information about the EoR has been obtained from the Cosmic Microwave Background and spectra of the distant quasars. However, the bulk of information about the physical parameters of the EoR is encoded in the 21cm line (1420 MHz) from neutral hydrogen redshifted into the low radio frequency range 200 – 50 MHz, for redshifts of 6 < z < 30.

The observational approaches range from large interferometer arrays to single antenna experiments. The latter, so-called global EoR experiments, spatially average the signal from the entire visible sky and try to identify the tiny signature of the EoR (of order 100 milliKelvin, which is a few orders of magnitude smaller than the Galactic foregrounds) in the sky-averaged spectrum. This extremely challenging precision requires very long observations (hundreds of hours) to achieve a sufficiently high signal-to-noise ratio. Moreover, ground-based global EoR experiments are affected by frequency-dependent effects (i.e. absorption and refraction) due to the propagation of radio-waves in the Earth’s ionosphere. The amplitude of these effects changes in time. There has therefore been an ongoing discussion in the literature on the importance of ionospheric effects and whether the global EoR signature can feasibly be detected from the ground.BIGHORNS_Sky_avg_SN_integr

The team of CAASTRO researches at Curtin University, led by Dr Marcin Sokolowski, used three months’ worth of 2014/2015 data collected with the BIGHORNS system with a conical log-spiral antenna deployed at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory to study the impact of the ionosphere on its capability to detect the global EoR signal. Comparison of data collected on different days at the same sidereal time enabled the researchers to infer some properties of the ionosphere, such as electron temperature (Te≈470 K at night-time) and amplitude and variability of ionospheric absorption of radio waves. Furthermore, the data sample shows that the sky-averaged spectrum indeed varies in time due to fluctuations of these ionospheric properties. Nevertheless, the data analysis indicates that averaging over very long observations (several days or even several weeks) suppresses the noise and leads to an improved signal-to-noise ratio. Therefore, the ionospheric effects and fluctuations are not fundamental impediments that prevent ground-based instruments, such as BIGHORNS, from integrating down to the precision required for global EoR experiments, provided that the ionospheric contribution is properly accounted for in the data analysis.

 

Publication details:

The impact of the ionosphere on ground-based detection of the global Epoch of Reionisation signal

Source: CAASTRO

Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered fast-moving wave-like features in the dusty disc around the nearby star AU Microscopii. These odd structures are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now.

The top row shows a Hubble image of the AU Mic disc from 2010, the middle row Hubble from 2011 and the bottom row VLT/SPHERE data from 2014. The black central circles show where the brilliant light of the central star has been blocked off to reveal the much fainter disc, and the position of the star is indicated schematically.

The scale bar at the top of the picture indicates the diameter of the orbit of the planet Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU).

Note that the brightness of the outer parts of the disc has been artificially brightened to reveal the faint structure.

Credit:
ESO, NASA & ESA

Mysterious Ripples Found Racing Through Planet-forming Disc: ESO

Unique structures spotted around nearby star


 

Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered fast-moving wave-like features in the dusty disc around the nearby star AU Microscopii. These odd structures are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now. The top row shows a Hubble image of the AU Mic disc from 2010, the middle row Hubble from 2011 and the bottom row VLT/SPHERE data from 2014. The black central circles show where the brilliant light of the central star has been blocked off to reveal the much fainter disc, and the position of the star is indicated schematically. The scale bar at the top of the picture indicates the diameter of the orbit of the planet Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU). Note that the brightness of the outer parts of the disc has been artificially brightened to reveal the faint structure. Credit: ESO, NASA & ESA
Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered fast-moving wave-like features in the dusty disc around the nearby star AU Microscopii. These odd structures are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now.
The top row shows a Hubble image of the AU Mic disc from 2010, the middle row Hubble from 2011 and the bottom row VLT/SPHERE data from 2014. The black central circles show where the brilliant light of the central star has been blocked off to reveal the much fainter disc, and the position of the star is indicated schematically.
The scale bar at the top of the picture indicates the diameter of the orbit of the planet Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU).
Note that the brightness of the outer parts of the disc has been artificially brightened to reveal the faint structure.
Credit:
ESO, NASA & ESA

Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered never-before-seen structures within a dusty disc surrounding a nearby star. The fast-moving wave-like features in the disc of the star AU Microscopii are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now. The origin and nature of these features present a new mystery for astronomers to explore. The results are published in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.

AU Microscopii, or AU Mic for short, is a young, nearby star surrounded by a large disc of dust [1]. Studies of such debris discs can provide valuable clues about how planets, which form from these discs, are created.

Astronomers have been searching AU Mic’s disc for any signs of clumpy or warped features, as such signs might give away the location of possible planets. And in 2014 they used the more powerful high-contrast imaging capabilities of ESO’s newly installed SPHERE instrument, mounted on the Very Large Telescope for their search — and discovered something very unusual.

Our observations have shown something unexpected,” explains Anthony Boccaletti, LESIA (Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/UPMC/Paris-Diderot), France, and lead author on the paper. “The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disc which have an arch-like, or wave-like, structure, unlike anything that has ever been observed before.

Five wave-like arches at different distances from the star show up in the new images, reminiscent of ripples in water. After spotting the features in the SPHERE data the team turned to earlier images of the disc taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in 2010 and 2011 to see whether the features were also visible in these [2]. They were not only able to identify the features on the earlier Hubble images — but they also discovered that they had changed over time. It turns out that these ripples are moving — and very fast!

We reprocessed images from the Hubble data and ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a four-year period,” explains team member Christian Thalmann (ETH Zürich, Switzerland). “By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to about 40 000 kilometres/hour!

The features further away from the star seem to be moving faster than those closer to it. At least three of the features are moving so fast that they could well be escaping from the gravitational attraction of the star. Such high speeds rule out the possibility that these are conventional disc features caused by objects — like planets — disturbing material in the disc while orbiting the star. There must have been something else involved to speed up the ripples and make them move so quickly, meaning that they are a sign of something truly unusual [3].

Everything about this find was pretty surprising!” comments co-author Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific, USA. “And because nothing like this has been observed or predicted in theory we can only hypothesise when it comes to what we are seeing and how it came about.

The team cannot say for sure what caused these mysterious ripples around the star. But they have considered and ruled out a series of phenomena as explanations, including the collision of two massive and rare asteroid-like objects releasing large quantities of dust, and spiral waves triggered by instabilities in the system’s gravity.

But other ideas that they have considered look more promising.

One explanation for the strange structure links them to the star’s flares. AU Mic is a star with high flaring activity — it often lets off huge and sudden bursts of energy from on or near its surface,” explains co-author Glenn Schneider of Steward Observatory, USA. “One of these flares could perhaps have triggered something on one of the planets — if there are planets — like a violent stripping of material which could now be propagating through the disc, propelled by the flare’s force.

It is very satisfying that SPHERE has proved to be very capable at studying discs like this in its first year of operation,” adds Jean-Luc Beuzit, who is both a co-author of the new study and also led the development of SPHERE itself.

The team plans to continue to observe the AU Mic system with SPHERE and other facilities, including ALMA, to try to understand what is happening. But, for now, these curious features remain an unsolved mystery.

Notes

[1] AU Microscopii lies just 32 light-years away from Earth. The disc essentially comprises asteroids that have collided with such vigour that they have been ground to dust.

[2] The data were gathered by Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS).

[3] The edge-on view of the disc complicates the interpretation of its three-dimensional structure.

More information

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Fast-Moving Structures in the Debris Disk Around AU Microscopii”, to appear in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.

Source: ESO

eso1523a

A Celestial Butterfly Emerges from its Dusty Cocoon

eso1523aSPHERE reveals earliest stage of planetary nebula formation


Some of the sharpest images ever made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have, for the first time, revealed what appears to be an ageing star giving birth to a butterfly-like planetary nebula. These observations of the red giant star L2 Puppis, from the ZIMPOL mode of the newly installed SPHERE instrument, also clearly showed a close companion. The dying stages of stars continue to pose astronomers with many riddles, and the origin of such bipolar nebulae, with their complex and alluring hourglass figures, doubly so. This new imaging mode means that the VLT is currently the sharpest astronomical direct imaging instrument in existence.

At about 200 light-years away, L2 Puppis is one of the closest red giants to Earth known to be entering its final stages of life. The new observations with the ZIMPOL mode of SPHERE were made in visible light using extreme adaptive optics, which corrects images to a much higher degree than standard adaptive optics, allowing faint objects and structures close to bright sources of light to be seen in greater detail. They are the first published results from this mode and the most detailed of such a star.

ZIMPOL can produce images that are three times sharper than those from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and the new observations show the dust that surrounds L2 Puppis in exquisite detail [1]. They confirm earlier findings, made using NACO, of the dust being arranged in a disc, which from Earth is seen almost completely edge-on, but provide a much more detailed view. The polarisation information from ZIMPOL also allowed the team to construct a three dimensional model of the dust structures [2].

The astronomers found the dust disc to begin about 900 million kilometres from the star — slightly farther than the distance from the Sun to Jupiter — and discovered that it flares outwards, creating a symmetrical, funnel-like shape surrounding the star. The team also observed a second source of light about 300 million kilometres — twice the distance from Earth to the Sun — from L2 Puppis. This very close companion star is likely to be another red giant of slightly lower mass, but less evolved.

The combination of a large amount of dust surrounding a slowly dying star, along with the presence of a companion star, mean that this is exactly the type of system expected to create a bipolar planetary nebula. These three elements seem to be necessary, but a considerable amount of good fortune is also still required if they are to lead to the subsequent emergence of a celestial butterfly from this dusty chrysalis.

Lead author of the paper, Pierre Kervella, explains: “The origin of bipolar planetary nebulae is one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics, especially the question of how, exactly, stars return their valuable payload of metals back into space — an important process, because it is this material that will be used to produce later generations of planetary systems.”

In addition to L2 Puppis’s flared disc, the team found two cones of material, which rise out perpendicularly to the disc. Importantly, within these cones, they found two long, slowly curving plumes of material. From the origin points of these plumes, the team deduces that one is likely to be the product of the interaction between the material from L2 Puppis and the companions star’s wind and radiation pressure, while the other is likely to have arisen from a collision between the stellar winds from the two stars, or be the result of an accretion disc around the companion star.

Although much is still to be understood, there are two leading theories of bipolar planetary nebulae, both relying on the existence of a binary star system [3]. The new observations suggest that both of these processes are in action around L2 Puppis, making it appear very probable that the pair of stars will, in time, give birth to a butterfly.

Pierre Kervella concludes: “With the companion star orbiting L2 Puppis only every few years, we expect to see how the companion star shapes the red giant’s disc. It will be possible to follow the evolution of the dust features around the star in real time — an extremely rare and exciting prospect.”

Notes
[1] SPHERE/ZIMPOL use extreme adaptive optics to create diffraction-limited images, which come a lot closer than previous adaptive optics instruments to achieving the theoretical limit of the telescope if there were no atmosphere. Extreme adaptive optics also allows much fainter objects to be seen very close to a bright star. These images are also taken in visible light — shorter wavelengths than the near-infrared regime, where most earlier adaptive optics imaging was performed. These two factors result in significantly sharper images than earlier VLT images. Even higher spatial resolution has been achieved with VLTI, but the interferometer does not create images directly.

[2] The dust in the disc was very efficient at scattering the stars’ light towards Earth and polarising it, a feature that the team could use to create a three-dimensional map of the envelope using both ZIMPOL and NACO data and a disc model based on the RADMC-3D radiative transfer modeling tool, which uses a given set of parameters for the dust to simulate photons propagating through it.

[3] The first theory is that the dust produced by the primary, dying star’s stellar wind is confined to a ring-like orbit about the star by the stellar winds and radiation pressure produced by the companion star. Any further mass lost from the main star is then funneled, or collimated, by this disc, forcing the material to move outwards in two opposing columns perpendicular to the disc.

The second holds that most of the material being ejected by the dying star is accreted by its nearby companion, which begins to form an accretion disc and a pair of powerful jets. Any remaining material is pushed away by the dying star’s stellar winds, forming an encompassing cloud of gas and dust, as would normally occur in a single star system. The companion star’s newly created bipolar jets, moving with much greater force than the stellar winds of the dying star, then carve dual cavities through the surrounding dust, resulting in the characteristic appearance of a bipolar planetary nebula.

Source: ESO

The system Kepler-444 formed when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist's conception.

Image courtesy of NASA

Circular orbits identified for 74 small exoplanets

Observations of 74 Earth-sized planets around distant stars may narrow field of habitable candidates.

By Jennifer Chu


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Viewed from above, our solar system’s planetary orbits around the sun resemble rings around a bulls-eye. Each planet, including Earth, keeps to a roughly circular path, always maintaining the same distance from the sun.

The system Kepler-444 formed when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist's conception. Image courtesy of NASA
The system Kepler-444 formed when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist’s conception.
Image courtesy of NASA

For decades, astronomers have wondered whether the solar system’s circular orbits might be a rarity in our universe. Now a new analysis suggests that such orbital regularity is instead the norm, at least for systems with planets as small as Earth.

In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers from MIT and Aarhus University in Denmark report that 74 exoplanets, located hundreds of light-years away, orbit their respective stars in circular patterns, much like the planets of our solar system.

These 74 exoplanets, which orbit 28 stars, are about the size of Earth, and their circular trajectories stand in stark contrast to those of more massive exoplanets, some of which come extremely close to their stars before hurtling far out in highly eccentric, elongated orbits.

“Twenty years ago, we only knew about our solar system, and everything was circular and so everyone expected circular orbits everywhere,” says Vincent Van Eylen, a visiting graduate student in MIT’s Department of Physics. “Then we started finding giant exoplanets, and we found suddenly a whole range of eccentricities, so there was an open question about whether this would also hold for smaller planets. We find that for small planets, circular is probably the norm.”

Ultimately, Van Eylen says that’s good news in the search for life elsewhere. Among other requirements, for a planet to be habitable, it would have to be about the size of Earth — small and compact enough to be made of rock, not gas. If a small planet also maintained a circular orbit, it would be even more hospitable to life, as it would support a stable climate year-round. (In contrast, a planet with a more eccentric orbit might experience dramatic swings in climate as it orbited close in, then far out from its star.)

“If eccentric orbits are common for habitable planets, that would be quite a worry for life, because they would have such a large range of climate properties,” Van Eylen says. “But what we find is, probably we don’t have to worry too much because circular cases are fairly common.”

Star-crossed numbers

In the past, researchers have calculated the orbital eccentricities of large, “gas giant” exoplanets using radial velocity — a technique that measures a star’s movement. As a planet orbits a star, its gravitational force will tug on the star, causing it to move in a pattern that reflects the planet’s orbit. However, the technique is most successful for larger planets, as they exert enough gravitational pull to influence their stars.

Researchers commonly find smaller planets by using a transit-detecting method, in which they study the light given off by a star, in search of dips in starlight that signify when a planet crosses, or “transits,” in front of that star, momentarily diminishing its light. Ordinarily, this method only illuminates a planet’s existence, not its orbit. But Van Eylen and his colleague Simon Albrecht, of Aarhus University, devised a way to glean orbital information from stellar transit data.

They first reasoned that if they knew the mass and radius of a planet’s star, they could calculate how long a planet would take to orbit that star, if its orbit were circular. The mass and radius of a star determines its gravitational pull, which in turn influences how fast a planet travels around the star.

By calculating a planet’s orbital velocity in a circular orbit, they could then estimate a transit’s duration — how long a planet would take to cross in front of a star. If the calculated transit matched an actual transit, the researchers reasoned that the planet’s orbit must be circular. If the transit were longer or shorter, the orbit must be more elongated, or eccentric.

Not so eccentric

To obtain actual transit data, the team looked through data collected over the past four years by NASA’s Kepler telescope — a space observatory that surveys a slice of the sky in search of habitable planets. The telescope has monitored the brightness of over 145,000 stars, only a fraction of which have been characterized in any detail.

The team chose to concentrate on 28 stars for which mass and radius have previously been measured, using asteroseismology — a technique that measures stellar pulsations, which reflect a star’s mass and radius.

These 28 stars host multiplanet systems — 74 exoplanets in all. The researchers obtained Kepler data for each exoplanet, looking not only for the occurrence of transits, but also their duration. Given the mass and radius of the host stars, the team calculated each planet’s transit duration if its orbit were circular, then compared the estimated transit durations with actual transit durations from Kepler data.

Across the board, Van Eylen and Albrecht found the calculated and actual transit durations matched, suggesting that all 74 exoplanets maintain circular, not eccentric, orbits.

“We found that most of them matched pretty closely, which means they’re pretty close to being circular,” Van Eylen says. “We are very certain that if very high eccentricities were common, we would’ve seen that, which we don’t.”

Van Eylen says the orbital results for these smaller planets may eventually help to explain why larger planets have more extreme orbits.

“We want to understand why some exoplanets have extremely eccentric orbits, while in other cases, such as the solar system, planets orbit mostly circularly,” Van Eylen says. “This is one of the first times we’ve reliably measured the eccentricities of small planets, and it’s exciting to see they are different from the giant planets, but similar to the solar system.”

This research was funded in part by the European Research Council.

 

Related links

ARCHIVE: New technique allows analysis of clouds around exoplanets
http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2015/clouds-around-exoplanets-0303

ARCHIVE: New technique measures mass of exoplanets
http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2013/new-technique-measures-mass-of-exoplanets-1219

ARCHIVE: Researchers discover that an exoplanet is Earth-like in mass and size
http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2013/kepler-78b-earth-like-in-mass-and-size-1030

 

Source: MIT News Office

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

First Exoplanet Visible Light Spectrum

New technique paints promising picture for future


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 [1] 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 [2]. 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.

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.
Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [5].

“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.

Notes
[1] Both 51 Pegasi b and its host star 51 Pegasi are among the objects available for public naming in the IAU’s NameExoWorlds contest.

[2] Two earlier planetary objects were detected orbiting in the extreme environment of a pulsar.

[3] The challenge is similar to trying to study the faint glimmer reflected off a tiny insect flying around a distant and brilliant light.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

Source: ESO