the new ussr illustrated

welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

exoplanets – an introduction of sorts

leave a comment »


Jacinta: So do you think we’ve hauled ourselves out of ignorance sufficiently to have a halfway stimulating discussion on exoplanets?

Canto: I think we should try, since it’s one of the most exciting and rapidly developing fields of inquiry at the moment.

Jacinta: And that’s saying something, what with microbiomes, homo naledi, nanobots and quantum biology…

Canto: Yes, enough to keep us chatting semi-ignorantly to the end of days. But let’s try to enlighten each other on exoplanets…

Jacinta: Extra solar planets, planets orbiting other stars, the first of which was discovered just over 20 years ago, and now, thanks largely to the Kepler Space Observatory, we’ve discovered thousands, and future missions, using TESS and the James Webb telescope, will uncover megatonnes more.

Canto: Yes, and you know, about the Kepler scope, l was blown away – this might be veering off topic a bit, but I was blown away in researching this by the fact that Kepler orbits the sun. I mean, I knew it was a space telescope, but I just assumed it was in orbit around earth, probably at a great distance to avoid interference from our atmosphere, but that we can position satellites in orbit around the sun, that really sort of stunned me, more I think than the exoplanet discoveries. Am I being naive?

Jacinta: No, not at all. Well, yes and no. Everything is stunning if you haven’t followed the incremental steps along the knowledge pathway. I mean, if you think, hey the sun’s a way away, and it’s really big and dangerous, best not go there, or something like that, you might be shocked, but think about it, we’ve been sending satellites around the earth for a long time now, and we know how to do it because we know about earth’s gravitational field and can calculate precisely how to harness it for satellite navigation. We’ve currently got a couple of thousand human-made satellites orbiting the earth and trying more or less successfully to avoid colliding with each other. So the sun also has a gravitational field and we’ve known the mathematics of gravitational fields since Newton. It’s the same formula for a star, a planet or whatever, all you need to know is its mass and its radius. And look at all the natural objects orbiting the sun without a problem. Can’t be that hard.

Canto: Okay… so how do we know the mass of the sun? Okay, forget it, let’s get back to exoplanets. What’s the big fuss here? Why are we so dead keen on exploring exoplanets?

Jacinta: Well the most obvious reason for the fuss is SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, but to me it’s just satisfying a general curiosity, or you might say a many-faceted curiosity. And it’s all about us mostly. For example, is the solar system that we inhabit typical? We’ve mostly thought it was but we didn’t have anything to compare it with, but now we’re discovering all sorts of weird and wonderful planetary systems, and star systems, with gas giants like Jupiter orbiting incredibly close to their stars – it’s completely overturned our understanding of how planets exist and are formed, and that’s fantastically exciting.

Canto: So you say we discovered the first exoplanet about 20 years ago, and now we know about thousands – that’s a pretty huge expansion of our knowledge, so how come things have changed so fast? You’ve mentioned new technologies, new space probes, why have they suddenly become so successful?

Jacinta: Well I suppose it’s been a convergence of developments, but let’s go back to that first discovery, back in 1992. Two planets, the first ever discovered, were found orbiting a pulsar – a rapidly rotating neutron star. First discovery, first surprise. Pulsars with planets orbiting them, who would’ve thought? Pulsars are the remnants of supernovae – how could planets have survived that? But that first discovery was largely a consequence of our ability to measure, and the fact that pulsars pulse with extreme regularity. Any anomaly in the pulsing would be cause for further investigation, and that’s how the planets were found, and later independently confirmed. Now this was big news, in a field that was already becoming alert to the possibility of exoplanets, so you could say it opened the floodgates.

Canto: Really? But they didn’t discover any more for two or three years.

Jacinta: Well, okay it opened the gates but it didn’t start the flood, that really happened with the second discovery, the first discovery of a planet orbiting a main-sequence star like ours.

Canto: Main sequence? Please explain?

Jacinta: Well these are stars in a stable state, a state of balance or equilibrium, fusioning hydrogen – basically stars not too different from our own, within much the same range in terms of mass and luminosity. So 51 pegasus b was the first planet to be discovered by the radial velocity method, and radial velocity means the speed at which a star is moving towards or away from us. We can measure this, and whether the star is accelerating or decelerating in its movement, by means of the Doppler effect – waves bunch up when the object emitting them is moving towards us, they spread out when the object is receding from us, and the degree of the bunching or the spreading is a measure of their speed and whether it’s accelerating or decelerating. Now we can measure this with extreme accuracy using spectrometers, and that includes any perturbations in the star’s movement caused by orbiting bodies. That’s how 51 pegasus b was discovered.

Canto: So… how long have we had these spectrometers? Were they first developed in the nineties, or to the level of accuracy that they could detect these perturbations?

Jacinta: Well I don’t have a precise answer to that apart from the general observation that spectroscopes are getting better, and more carefully targeted for specific purposes. The French ELODIE spectrograph, for example, which was used to find 51 pegasus b, was first deployed in 1993 specifically for exoplanet searching, and since then it’s been replaced by another improved instrument, but of the same type. So it’s a kind of non-vicious circle, research leads to new technology which leads to new research and so on.


Canto: So – we’ve gotten very good at measuring perturbations in a star’s regular movements…

Jacinta: Regular perturbations.

Canto: And we know somehow that these are caused by planets orbiting around them? How do we know this?

Jacinta: Well we will know from the size of the perturbation and its regularity that it’s an orbiting body, and we know it’s not a star because it’s not emitting any light (though it may be a low-mass star whose light isn’t easily separated from its parent star). We also know – we knew from the results that it was a massive planet orbiting very close to its star – a hot Jupiter as they  call it. And that was another surprise, but we’ve developed different techniques for discovering these things and we often use them to back each other up, to confirm or disconfirm previous findings. The ELODIE observation of 51 pegasus b was confirmed within a week of its announcement by another instrument, the Hamilton spectrograph in California. So there’s a lot of confirmation going on to weed out false positives.

Canto: So radial velocity is one technique, and obviously a very successful one as it got everyone excited about exoplanets, but what others are there, and which are the most successful and promising?

Jacinta: Well the radial velocity method was initially the most successful as you say, and hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered that way, but this method actually led to a kind of bias in the findings, because it was only able to detect perturbations above a certain level, so it was best for finding large planets close to their stars. But of course that was good too because we had never imagined that large gassy planets could exist so close to their stars. It’s opened up the whole field of planet formation. Then again, if the main aim is to find earth-like planets, this method is less effective than other methods. So let’s move on to the Kepler project. Kepler was launched in 2009, and since then you could say it has blitzed the field in terms of exoplanet detection. It uses transit photometry, which means that it measures the dimming of the light from a star when an orbiting planet passes between it and the Kepler detector.

Canto: So I get the idea of transit, as in the transit of venus, which we can see pretty clearly, but it’s amazing that we can detect transiting planets attached to stars so many light years away.

Jacinta: Well this is how we’ve expanded our world, from the infinitesimally small to the unfathomably large, from multiple billions of years to femtoseconds and beyond, through continuously refining technology, but let’s get back to Kepler. It orbits around the sun, and has collected data from around 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view – stars that are generally around the same distance from that dirty big black hole at the centre of our galaxy as our sun is.

Canto: Is that significant – that we’re focusing on stars in that range?

Jacinta: Apparently so, at least according to the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which puts all sorts of unimaginative limits on the likelihood of earth-like planets, IMHO, but no matter, it’s still a vast selection of stars, and we’ve reaped a grand harvest of planets from them – some 3000-odd, with over 1000 confirmed.

Canto: So… promising earth-like planets?

Jacinta: Yes, but I must point out that earth-like planets are difficult to detect. You see, Kepler was a kind of experiment, and we’ve learned from it, so that our next project will be much improved. For various reasons due to the photometric precision of the instrument, and inaccurate estimates of the variability of the stars in the field of view, we found that we needed to observe more transits to be sure we’d detected something. In other words we needed a longer mission than we’d planned for. And of course, Kepler has suffered serious technical problems, especially the failure of two reaction wheels, which have affected our ability to repoint the instrument. Having said that, we’ve been more than happy with its success.

Canto: Okay I just want to talk about these exoplanets. Can you summarise the most interesting discoveries?

Jacinta: Well, Kepler has certainly corrected the view we might’ve gotten from the earlier radial velocity method that large Jupiter-like planets are more common than smaller ones. We’ve had a number of reports from the Kepler group over the years, and over time they’ve adjusted downwards the average mass of the planets detected. And yes, they’ve discovered a number of planets in the ‘habzone’ as they call it. But that’s not all – only this year NASA confirmed the existence of five rocky planets, smaller than earth, orbiting a star that’s over 11 billion years old. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the explosion of findings, whether or not these planets contain life. And we’ve only just begun our hunt, and the refinement of instruments. It’s surely a great time to study astrophysics. It’s not just SETI, it’s about the incredible diversity of star systems, and working out where we fit into all this diversity.


Canto: Okay, I can see this an appropriately massive subject. Maybe we can revisit it from time to time?

Jacinta: Absolutely.

Some very useful sites:



Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2015 at 10:05 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: