Five new rocky planets discovered

MORE THAN THREE-QUARTERS of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft have sizes ranging from that of Earth to that of Neptune, which is nearly four times as big as Earth. Such planets dominate the galactic census but are not represented in our own Solar System. Astronomers don’t know how they form or if they are made of rock, water or gas.

The Kepler team has today reported on four years of ground-based telescope follow-up observations targeting Kepler’s exoplanet systems (ie. planets beyond our Solar System) at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington. These observations confirm the numerous Kepler discoveries are indeed planets and yield mass measurements of these enigmatic worlds that vary between Earth and Neptune in size.

Included in the findings are five new rocky planets ranging in size from ten to eighty percent larger than Earth. Two of the new rocky worlds, dubbed Kepler-99b and Kepler-406b, are both forty percent larger in size than Earth and have a density similar to lead. The planets orbit their host stars in less than five and three days respectively, making these worlds too hot for life as we know it.

Artist's impression of an exoplanet

Astronomers have used ground-based telescopes to do follow-up observations of exoplanets detected by NASA’s Kepler space observatory. They’ve confirmed that many are between the Earth and Neptune in size. (Artist’s impression courtesy of NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech / Tim Pyle.)

Wobbly measurements

A major component of the follow-up observations were Doppler measurements of the planets’ host stars. The team measured the wobble of the host star, caused by the gravitational tug on the star exerted by the orbiting planet. That measured wobble reveals the mass of the planet: the higher the mass of the planet, the greater the gravitational tug on the star and hence the greater the wobble.

“This marvellous avalanche of information about the mini-Neptune planets is telling us about their core-envelope structure, not unlike a peach with its pit and fruit,” said Geoff Marcy, professor of astronomy at University of California, Berkeley who led the summary analysis of the high-precision Doppler study. “We now face daunting questions about how these enigmas formed and why our Solar System is devoid of the most populous residents in the galaxy.”

Artist's impression of exoplanets orbiting a red star

Artist’s impression of several exoplanets orbiting a red star. Courtesy ESO.

Using one of the world’s largest ground-based telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, scientists confirmed 41 of the exoplanets discovered by Kepler and determined the masses of 16. With the mass and diameter in-hand, scientists could immediately determine the density of the planets, characterising them as rocky or gaseous, or mixtures of the two.

These density measurements dictate the possible chemical composition of these strange, but ubiquitous planets. The density measurements suggest that those planets smaller than Neptune – or mini-Neptunes – have a rocky core, but the proportions of hydrogen, helium and hydrogen-rich molecules in the envelope surrounding that core vary dramatically, with some having no envelope at all.

One step closer

A complementary technique used to determine mass, and in turn density of a planet, is by measuring the transit timing variations (TTV). Much like the gravitational force of a planet on its star, neighbouring planets can tug on one another causing one planet to accelerate and another planet to decelerate along its orbit.

Ji-Wei Xie of the University of Toronto, used TTV to validate 15 pairs of Kepler planets ranging from Earth-sized to a little larger than Neptune. Xie measured masses of 30 planets thereby adding to the compendium of planetary characteristics for this new class of planets.

“Kepler’s primary objective is to determine the prevalence of planets of varying sizes and orbits. Of particular interest to the search for life is the prevalence of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre. “But the question in the back of our minds is: are all planets the size of Earth rocky? Might some be scaled-down versions of icy Neptunes or steamy water worlds? What fraction are recognisable as kin of our rocky, terrestrial globe?”

Artist's impression of the Kepler space observatory

Artist’s impression of the Kepler space observatory. Courtesy NASA / Wendy Stenzel.

The mass measurements produced by Doppler and TTV hint that a large fraction of planets smaller than 1.5 times the radius of Earth may be comprised of the rocky silicates, iron, nickel and magnesium that are found in the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) here in the Solar System.

Armed with this type of information, scientists will be able to turn the fraction of stars harbouring Earth-sizes planets into the fraction of stars harbouring bona-fide rocky planets. And that’s a step closer to finding a habitable environment beyond the Solar System.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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