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Hunt For Distant Planets Continues

19 February, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com - In 2009, a new class of extrasolar planet was discovered and named GJ 1214b and based on Hubble Space Telescope's observations, it was a watery world blanketed by a thick, steam-like atmosphere.

“GJ 1214b is like no planet we know of,” study lead author Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., said in a statement. “A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water.”

Or was it perhaps a mini-Neptune-like planet hrouded in a thick atmosphere of hydrogen and helium?



Three years later, a new method called multi-object spectroscopy was used to analyze the planet’s atmosphere from large, ground-based telescopes, by a team of scientists led by Jacob Bean, now an assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

“We’re trying to distinguish whether it’s like the gas giants we know about, or something fundamentally different from what we’ve seen in our solar system — an atmosphere predominantly composed of water,” Jacob Bean,

The new method will able scientists to deduce the atmospheric composition of planets that were invisible to humans just a few years ago.

Bean has received a 60-orbit allocation on the Hubble Space Telescope to continue his observations on GJ 1214b, a sign of the work’s importance. Previous HST studies of planetary atmospheres encompassed 10 to 20 orbits.

“It’s interesting to note that all the instruments astronomers have used to study exoplanet atmospheres so far were never designed for that,” Bean said. “We’re using them in very unusual ways. We do what we can with what we have.”

But now Bean aims to build a system that is perfectly suited and well optimized to study exoplanet atmospheres, including that of GJ 1214b.

“The current data suggest an atmosphere predominately composed of water, but it’s not a definitive result yet,” Bean said. “There could be even more exotic scenarios possible that we’re not able to rule out.”

If GJ 1214b is a water world, “It would be very different than anything in our own solar system,” said Harvard University astronomy Professor David Charbonneau, whose team discovered the planet.

The search taps into some of modern science’s deepest questions: Are humans alone in the cosmos, and is our life-sustaining world unique? One of the earliest writers to speculate about exoplanets was the Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for espousing beliefs that the Catholic Church deemed heretical.



Click on image to enlarge

Credits: NASA/Hubble


In one prescient passage, Bruno wrote, “In space there are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours.”

Discoveries of new exoplanets have flowed like oil from a gushing wellhead in recent years. The number has topped 850 and continues to climb.

Starting in the 1990s, exoplanet hunters initially were only able to find giant, Jupiter-like gas planets because they were bigger and thus easier to find. “They were closer to their stars than Jupiter is from the sun, so we nicknamed them ‘hot Jupiters,’” Charbonneau said.

Now, astronomers begin to concentrate on a new, different goal: find planets that are more Earthlike. One major push along that front was the $600-million Kepler mission, launched in 2009. This mission, encompassing a 100-member science team, is conducting a survey of planets orbiting other sun-like stars.


The Hunt for Earth-like Planets


“Kepler is on the cusp of finding small planets in the habitable zone around both sun-like and small stars,” Fabrycky said. “This is the goal of the mission, and it’s almost there.”

A Kepler research veteran, Fabrycky began his UChicago faculty appointment last October. Fabrycky precisely measures the timing of transits, the mini eclipses that planets cause as they pass in front of their stars.

Timing inconsistencies in the transits often result from the gravitational influence of other planets.

So far Kepler has 105 confirmed planet discoveries to its credit, and has identified 2,740 planet candidates. As a postdoctoral scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, two years ago, Fabrycky was a member of a team that discovered six planets orbiting a single star called Kepler-11. “Kepler-11 is hanging on — for the moment — as the one with the most number of planet signals” among exoplanetary systems, Fabrycky said.

Bean and his colleagues have made the best observations of planetary atmospheres so far using the Hubble Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and, in Chile, the Very Large Telescope array and the twin Magellan Telescopes. But the planned Giant Magellan Telescope, of which UChicago is a founding partner, and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope should eclipse the capabilities of today’s observatories when they go into service late this decade.

The new telescopes will be able to do the same sort of exoplanetary atmospheric studies underway now, “but actually do it for the smaller planets that might even be habitable,” Charbonneau said.

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