July 4, 2014
A newly discovered planet in a binary, or twin, star system located 3,000 light-years from Earth is expanding astronomers’ notions of where Earth-like -- and even potentially habitable -- planets can form, and how to find them.
At twice the mass of Earth, the planet orbits one of the stars in the binary system at almost exactly the same distance at which Earth orbits the sun. However, because the planet’s host star is much dimmer than the sun, the planet is much colder than Earth -- a little colder, in fact, than Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
Four international research teams, led by professor Andrew Gould of The Ohio State University in Columbus, published their discovery in the July 4 issue of the journal Science. The research is partly funded by NASA.
The study provides the first evidence that terrestrial planets can form in orbits similar to Earth’s, even in a binary star system where the stars are not very far apart. Although this planet itself is too cold to be habitable, the same planet orbiting a sun-like star in such a binary system would be in the so-called “habitable zone” -- the region where conditions might be right for life.
Image above: This artist's rendering shows a newly discovered planet (far right) orbiting one star (right) of a binary star system. Image Credit: Cheongho Han, Chungbuk National University, Rep. of Korea.
“This greatly expands the potential locations to discover habitable planets in the future,” said Scott Gaudi, professor of astronomy at Ohio State. “Half the stars in the galaxy are in binary systems. We had no idea if Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbits could even form in these systems.”
Earlier evidence that planets form in binary star systems came from NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes (see http://orbiterchspacenews.blogspot.ch/2011/09/nasas-kepler-discovery-confirms-first.html and http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/news/spitzer-20070329.html), but the planets and dust structures in those studies were not similar to those of Earth.
The technique astronomers use to find the planet, called OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, is called gravitational microlensing. In this method, the light of a distant star is magnified by a closer star that happens to pass in front -- if a planet is also present around the foreground star, it will further alter and distort the light of the background star. The telescopes used in this study are part of several projects, including the OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment), MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics), MicroFUN (the Microlensing Follow Up Network), and the Wise Observatory.
Searching for planets within binary systems is tricky for most techniques, because the light from the second star complicates the interpretation of the data. "But in gravitational microlensing,” Gould explained, "we don't even look at the light from the star-planet system. We just observe how its gravity affects light from a more distant, unrelated star. This gives us a new tool to search for planets in binary star systems."
Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST-AFTA). Image Credit: NASA
NASA's proposed WFIRST-AFTA (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope - Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets) mission would use the microlensing technique to find and characterize hundreds of thousands of planets in binary systems, website: http://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/
WFIRST: Uncovering the Mysteries of the Universe.
Video above: The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is an upcoming space telescope designed to perform wide-field imaging and spectroscopy of the infrared sky. One of WFIRST's objectives will be looking for clues about dark energy--the mysterious force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Another objective of the mission will be finding and studying exoplanets. Video Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
WFIRST uses the same 2.4 meter telescope size as Hubble, but with 18 cutting-edge fourth-generation image sensors compared to Hubble's single first-generation sensor. As a result, each WFIRST image will cover over 200 times as much as a Hubble Wide Field Camera 3/IR image and be 300 megapixels in size. Hubble images reveal thousands of galaxies; a single WFIRST image will uncover millions.
To help uncover the mystery of dark energy, WFIRST will make incredibly precise measurements of the universe. These measurements, like the distance and position of galaxies, can be compared to other measurements—such as the cosmic microwave background from the WMAP mission—to determine how dark energy has changed over time. WFIRST can also measure the slight distortions in light from distant galaxies as it passes more nearby mass concentrations. These data will build a three dimensional picture of how mass is distributed throughout the universe, and provide independent confirmation of its structure.
Because WFIRST has such a large and sensitive field of view, it can find thousands of new exoplanets through a process called microlensing. When one star in the sky appears to pass nearly in front of another, the light rays of the background source star become bent due to the gravitational "attraction" of the foreground star. This "lens" star is then a virtual magnifying glass, amplifying the brightness of the background source star. If the lens star harbors a planetary system, then those planets can also act as lenses, each one producing a short deviation in the brightness of the source. For closer planets, WFIRST will open a new era of direct observation. Currently only a handful of planets are observable in light reflected off of them, and they are all large planets close to their stars. WFIRST will be able to resolve planets as small as Neptune, and as far from their stars as Saturn is from the sun. This is possible thanks to newly developed coronagraphs, which block the bright light from the star to make the planet more visible.
Read the full news release from Ohio State at: http://news.osu.edu/news/2014/07/03/planet-discovery-expands-search-for-earthlike-planets/
Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA / JPL / Whitney Clavin.