Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Busy week, the week that was. Catch me on NPR's All Things Considered offering up some thoughts on the current SETI situation. Also my posts have been slowed as I get into a final stretch on a new book project for a general audience. If you like astronomy, cosmology, black holes and astrobiology you're in for a treat - I hope. Hitting the stores in 2012, I'll be saying more about this over time.

As for right now, well.....

There's a certain poetry to the astronomical news that's been hitting the media about planets that may be doing precisely as their name implies (πλανήτης in case your Greek isn't as rusty as mine). Painstaking monitoring of about 50 million stars in our galaxy by the MOA and OGLE gravitational microlensing surveys have revealed a very substantial population of Jupiter-sized objects that orbit at least 10 times further from their stars than the Earth does the Sun, and may not even be bound to stars at all. Sumi et al. report these results in Nature, along with a nice commentary by Wambsganss.

Although only ten such candidates are actually detected the statistical implication (since lensing events are so incredibly rare) is that there are twice as many of these planetary bodies than normal main-sequence (hydrogen burning) stars in our main galactic terrain. That is a lot. Even more interestingly Sumi et al. claim that most of these objects, perhaps 75%, may be unbound from any parent stellar systems and are true wanderers. The basis for this argument comes from existing constraints on long orbit exoplanets. These are obtained from projects trying to directly image such worlds. Bottom line is that the imaging efforts around stars do not see as many planets as the microlensing results would imply, hence these objects have gotta be out in interstellar space.

Personally I think there is every reason to believe that there really is a huge population of free-floating planets out there. A couple of years ago various researchers came up with a framework for explaining exoplanetary orbital architectures that requires episodes of intense planet-planet gravitational interaction within a system. One consequence; lots of planets ejected away from their birth places. My colleague Kristen Menou and I dabbled in this to investigate the predictions for planet imaging surveys. It was fun. Many planetary systems may be born in configurations that are inherently dynamically unstable, chaotic. Flinging worlds to the void is a great way to 'cool' the system down.

So, apart from the wow-factor of rogue/free/unbound planets, there is real reason to chase and confirm this result. It could be a pivotal clue that tells us not only how most planetary system achieve their configurations, but also confirms that planet formation itself is an efficient process. You have to make planets a plenty around stars in order for this to all work. The alternative is also fascinating - perhaps these worlds form via a route more akin to that of stars and brown-dwarfs, another feather in the cap of gravitational accretion.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Flippin' Planets

A year ago it started to become clear that a significant number of exoplanetary systems harbored retrograde worlds. These planets are seen on small orbits that have the opposite sense to the spins of the stars that host them. This is a peculiar and puzzling arrangement. We've all been brought up to think of planets and stars forming out of the same proto-stellar disk of material and that angular momentum is an almost sacrosanct quantity - can't fiddle around with that. Getting planets to go in the opposite direction is quite unsettling.

Clearly the universe is having none of that silly narrow-minded thinking. However, the question has been how to produce these retrograde worlds; hot Jupiters zipping the "wrong" way around their parent stars in closely circular orbits. A new paper by Naoz and colleagues presents some intriguing and thorough calculations about a couple of phenomena that could do the trick.

They consider pairs of large, gas giant sized, planets that start out in decently large prograde orbits. For example, the inner planet may orbit at 6 astronomical units (AU) from the star, the outer planet at about 60 AU. The trick is to follow what happens if those initial orbits are highly misaligned. In other words if the orbital planes of the two planets are more than 50 degrees inclined with respect to each other. In this type of configuration long term gravitational nudging between the planets - particularly the outer one on the inner one - can result in severe changes in the ellipticity or eccentricity of the inner planet's orbit, as well as its orientation. Over a span of a few hundred thousand years the orbit can not only shift from being nearly circular to being nearly "needle like" (highly elliptical) but its orientation can change dramatically. In the most extreme instances it can quite literally flip, shifting all the way through a 90 degree inclination to more than 90 degrees - in effect going retrograde.

This flip can occur during an eccentricity spike, which I think gives us some physical insight to what happens. At the far point (apastron) of a super high eccentricity orbit the planet is going to be almost hanging in space, slowing to a near standstill before plunging back star-wards. If already on a highly inclined orbit (close to that 90 degrees) then all it will take is a little tug from the outer planet in the right direction to flip the orbit over. It's a bit like that moment of indecision teetering at the top of a snowy hill with skis attached to feet. Left to take the piste, right to go to the bar.

At the same time, an extremely elliptical orbit will bring the planet zooming in from several AU to mere tenths of an AU from the star as the planet screeches through its periastron approach. Naoz et al have computed the strength of star-planet tidal forces and the associated energy dissipation and show that the inner planet can be yanked into a tight circular orbit around the star in an incredibly brief period. A little too close to the honey pot and you get trapped. Once this happens the inner planet is totally decoupled from the outer planet, which simply cannot get its sticky gravitational mitts on the inner world any more. The end result is a close orbiting retrograde hot Jupiter.

Remarkably Naoz et al.'s models even seem to produce about the right fraction of systems in which this will happen. The only hitch is how to set up the initial configuration of planets, particularly with the outer planet on such a large orbit and with such a large mis-alignment between their orbital planes. Luckily an earlier epoch of strong planet-planet gravitational scattering from within the zone of planet formation might just do the trick.

Planetary systems are just so incredibly diverse. And, once again, we find ourselves gazing at our own system and wondering just how far we can or should take the Copernican Principle. This boring little solar system of ours may yet turn out to be a little on the special side.

Monday, May 2, 2011

55 Cancri e: Small or Big?

Detecting and characterizing exoplanets remains an extremely challenging occupation. A very good example of this has been the recent detection of the transit of a planet around a star in the nearby stellar system 55 Cancri. This is an interesting place. It contains a binary star consisting of a G-dwarf and an M-dwarf separated by at least 1000 astronomical units. At only 41 light years away the G-dwarf is visible to the naked human eye and, conveniently, harbors at least 5 planets.

These worlds had been detected using radial velocity measurements, with the first detections back in 1997. A recent reanalysis of the notoriously tricky radial velocity data (made even more so with possible mean-motion orbital resonances in the system) by Dawson & Fabrycky suggested that the innermost planet "e" was actually on a much tighter orbit than had previously been thought - with the incredibly short orbital period of 0.74 days. This also suggested it was rather lighter than thought, a super-Earth of at least 8 Earth masses.

This was intriguing because the probability of a transit increases with decreasing orbital radius. In this case it went up by a factor of three to about 33%. This has prompted a number of groups to go look for the transit again, after earlier attempts came up empty. Lo and behold the first reported transit of 55 Cancri e appeared from Winn et al. on April 27th 2011. Using the visible light telescope of the Canadian MOST mission they spotted a transit right on queue. Hopefully Dawson and Fabrycky had some champagne at the ready.

Analyzing the depth of the transit curve (a tiddly drop in starlight of about 0.02%) Winn and colleagues came up with a planetary radius of approximately 1.6 times the size of the Earth. Combined with a mass of almost 9 times that of the Earth this implies a remarkable density of about 11 grams per cubic centimeter. That's almost as dense as lead, and a clear indicator that this is an almost pure rock-iron composition.

At least that would be the case, except on May 2nd 2011 another paper appeared by Demory and colleagues that uses the Spitzer infrared telescope to detect the very same transiting planet. With this different telescope and different waveband, a transit depth is found that indicates 55 Cancri e is about 2.1 times the radius of the Earth. The statistics are good enough that this is a "3-sigma" difference from the MOST detection, indicating that this difference in measured radius would only occur by random error about 0.3% of the time.

So, with a radius of 2.1 times that of the Earth this devious planet would have to contain a significant amount of volatiles and be much less dense. Possible compositions would involve a rocky-iron Earth-like core surrounded by either 20% by mass of water or 0.1% by mass hydrogen and helium. The problem is that 55 Cancri e is so close to its parent G-dwarf star that it should have an effective temperature of about 2000 Kelvin - all over. Hardly an environment for anything that could be called a "volatile".

Its quite a conundrum. Demory et al. perform their analyses very carefully. The most likely explanation - and one that Demory and colleagues offer up - is that 55 Cancri e harbors an extended atmosphere. Perhaps carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide as a super heated "exosphere" could produce an anomalous infrared surface that makes the planet look fatter than it is. That would likely indicate some interesting compositional properties if the planet is indeed as dense as the optical data suggest. Winn et al. investigate the constraints on an atmosphere from their data. It's very interesting. The odds seem slim. The only option appears that if such an atmosphere exists it is being constantly replenished by perhaps geophysical activity on the planet itself. The current status is therefore open to question.

There is hope however. Because the star 55 Cancri shines so brightly in our skies it provides a marvelous flood of photons and the potential for extremely high quality astronomical observations. Unlike many of the mysterious new worlds we merely catch glimpses of, this one may well reveal its secrets to us in due course. Exoplanetary science continues to grow in richness.

As I write this 55 Cancri is up in the western sky of the Eastern seaboard of the United States, amongst the constellation of Cancer, the Crab. Perhaps you should run out in case you can spot it - you never know, you might just catch a transit.