Category: transit

Transit of Venus Image credit: Richard Orr

Transit of Venus 

Image credit:

Richard Orr

What is an Exoplanet?

An exoplanet or extrasolar planet is a planet outside our solar system that orbits a star. The first evidence of an exoplanet was noted as early as 1917, but was not recognized as such. However, the first scientific detection of an exoplanet was in 1988. Shortly afterwards, the first confirmed detection was in 1992. As of 1 April 2018, there are 3,758 confirmed planets in 2,808 systems, with 627 systems having more than one planet.


The High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS, since 2004) has discovered about a hundred exoplanets while the Kepler space telescope (since 2009) has found more than two thousand. Kepler has also detected a few thousand candidate planets, of which about 11% may be false positives.


In several cases, multiple planets have been observed around a star. About 1 in 5 Sun-like stars have an “Earth-sized” planet in the habitable zone. Assuming there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, one can hypothesize that there are 11 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way, rising to 40 billion if planets orbiting the numerous red dwarfs are included.


The least massive planet known is Draugr (also known as PSR B1257+12 A or PSR B1257+12 b), which is about twice the mass of the Moon. The most massive planet listed on the NASA Exoplanet Archive is HR 2562 b, about 30 times the mass of Jupiter, although according to some definitions of a planet, it is too massive to be a planet and may be a brown dwarf instead.


There are planets that are so near to their star that they take only a few hours to orbit and there are others so far away that they take thousands of years to orbit.


Some are so far out that it is difficult to tell whether they are gravitationally bound to the star. Almost all of the planets detected so far are within the Milky Way. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that extragalactic planets, exoplanets further away in galaxies beyond the local Milky Way galaxy, may exist. The nearest exoplanet is Proxima Centauri b, located 4.2 light-years (1.3 parsecs) from Earth and orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun.


Besides exoplanets, there are also rogue planets, which do not orbit any star and which tend to be considered separately, especially if they are gas giants, in which case they are often counted, like WISE 0855−0714, as sub-brown dwarfs. The rogue planets in the Milky Way possibly number in the billions (or more).


Some planets orbit one member of a binary star system, and several circumbinary planets have been discovered which orbit around both members of binary star. A few planets in triple star systems are known and one in the quadruple system Kepler-64.


Methods of detecting exoplanets

1° Radial velocity

A star with a planet will move in its own small orbit in response to the planet’s gravity. This leads to variations in the speed with which the star moves toward or away from Earth, i.e. the variations are in the radial velocity of the star with respect to Earth. The radial velocity can be deduced from the displacement in the parent star’s spectral lines due to the Doppler effect. The radial-velocity method measures these variations in order to confirm the presence of the planet using the binary mass function.


2º Transit photometry

While the radial velocity method provides information about a planet’s mass, the photometric method can determine the planet’s radius. If a planet crosses (transits) in front of its parent star’s disk, then the observed visual brightness of the star drops by a small amount; depending on the relative sizes of the star and the planet. 


3° Direct Imaging

Exoplanets are far away, and they are millions of times dimmer than the stars they orbit. So, unsurprisingly, taking pictures of them the same way you’d take pictures of, say Jupiter or Venus, is exceedingly hard.

New techniques and rapidly-advancing technology are making it happen.

The major problem astronomers face in trying to directly image exoplanets is that the stars they orbit are millions of times brighter than their planets. Any light reflected off of the planet or heat radiation from the planet itself is drowned out by the massive amounts of radiation coming from its host star. It’s like trying to find a flea in a lightbulb, or a firefly flitting around a spotlight.


On a bright day, you might use a pair of sunglasses, or a car’s sun visor, or maybe just your hand to block the glare of the sun so that you can see other things.

This is the same principle behind the instruments designed to directly image exoplanets. They use various techniques to block out the light of stars that might have planets orbiting them. Once the glare of the star is reduced, they can get a better look at objects around the star that might be exoplanets.

4° Gravitational Microlensing

Gravitational microlensing occurs when the gravitational field of a star acts like a lens, magnifying the light of a distant background star. This effect occurs only when the two stars are almost exactly aligned. Lensing events are brief, lasting for weeks or days, as the two stars and Earth are all moving relative to each other. More than a thousand such events have been observed over the past ten years.


If the foreground lensing star has a planet, then that planet’s own gravitational field can make a detectable contribution to the lensing effect. Since that requires a highly improbable alignment, a very large number of distant stars must be continuously monitored in order to detect planetary microlensing contributions at a reasonable rate. This method is most fruitful for planets between Earth and the center of the galaxy, as the galactic center provides a large number of background stars.

5° Astrometry

This method consists of precisely measuring a star’s position in the sky, and observing how that position changes over time. Originally, this was done visually, with hand-written records. By the end of the 19th century, this method used photographic plates, greatly improving the accuracy of the measurements as well as creating a data archive. If a star has a planet, then the gravitational influence of the planet will cause the star itself to move in a tiny circular or elliptical orbit. 


Effectively, star and planet each orbit around their mutual centre of mass (barycenter), as explained by solutions to the two-body problem. Since the star is much more massive, its orbit will be much smaller. Frequently, the mutual centre of mass will lie within the radius of the larger body. Consequently, it is easier to find planets around low-mass stars, especially brown dwarfs.

Mars Express: Phobos Transits Jupiter (2011….

Mars Express: Phobos Transits Jupiter (2011.06.01)


In this composite image from near-infrared light, two of…

In this composite image from near-infrared light, two of Jupiter’s moons are visible against the planet. The white circle in the middle of Jupiter is Io, and the blue circle at upper right is Ganymede. The three black spots are shadows cast by Io, Ganymede, and another moon, Callisto.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

The little moon Janus and Rhea transiting Saturn. Images from…

The little moon Janus and Rhea transiting Saturn. Images from the Cassini mission to Saturn, captured between Aug. 27 and Nov. 8, 2009. 

Credit: NASA, JPL, California Institute of Technology

A cosmic barbecue: Researchers spot 60 new ‘hot…

A cosmic barbecue: Researchers spot 60 new ‘hot Jupiter’ candidates

Yale researchers have identified 60 potential new “hot Jupiters”—highly irradiated worlds that glow like coals on a barbecue grill and are found orbiting only 1% of Sun-like stars.

Hot Jupiters constitute a class of gas giant planets located so close to their parent stars that they take less than a week to complete an orbit.

Second-year Ph.D. student Sarah Millholland and astronomy professor Greg Laughlin identified the planet candidates via a novel application of big data techniques. They used a supervised machine learning algorithm—a sophisticated program that can be trained to recognize patterns in data and make predictions—to detect the tiny amplitude variations in observed light that result as an orbiting planet reflects rays of light from its host star.

Millholland and Laughlin searched systematically for reflected light signals in the observations of more than 140,000 stars from four years of data from NASA’s Kepler mission. The Kepler spacecraft is best known for enabling the detection of thousands of exoplanets that transit their host stars. During a transit, a planet passes in front of a star and causes a periodic dip in the observed starlight.

Reflected light signals can be difficult to distinguish from stellar or instrumental variability, the researchers said, but a big data approach enabled them to pull out the faint signals. They generated thousands of synthetic datasets and trained an algorithm to recognize the properties of the reflected light signals in comparison to those with other types of variability.

The reflected light signals hold rich information about the planets’ atmospheres, according to the researchers. They contain characteristics such as cloud existence, atmospheric composition, wind patterns, and day-night temperature contrasts.

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