Tabby’s Star Megastructure Mystery Continues To Intrigue

Artist's concept of KIC 8462852, which has experienced unusual changes in luminosity over the past few years. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

Last fall, astronomer were surprised when the Kepler mission reported some anomalous readings from KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star). After noticing a strange and sudden drop in brightness, speculation began as to what could be causing it – with some going so far as to suggest that it was an alien megastructure. Naturally, the speculation didn’t last long, as further observations revealed no signs of intelligent life or artificial structures.

But the mystery of the strange dimming has not gone away. What’s more, in a paper posted this past Friday to arXiv, Benjamin T. Montet and Joshua D. Simon (astronomers from the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech and the Carnegie Institute of Science, respectively) have shown how an analysis of the star’s long-term behavior has only deepened the mystery further.

To recap, dips in brightness are quite common when observing distant stars. In fact, this is one of the primary techniques employed by the Kepler mission and other telescopes to determine if planets are orbiting a star (known as Transit Method). However, the “light curve” of Tabby’s Star – named after the lead author of the study that first detailed the phenomena (Tabetha S. Boyajian) – was particularly pronounced and unusual.

According to the study, the star would experience a ~20% dip in brightness, which would last for between 5 and 80 days. This was not consistent with a transitting planet, and Boyajian and her colleagues hypothesized that it was due to a swarm of cold, dusty comet fragments in a highly eccentric orbit accounted for the dimming.

However, others speculated that it could be the result of an alien megastructure known as Dyson Sphere (or Swarm), a series of structures that encompass a star in whole or in part. However, the SETI Institute quickly weighed in and indicated that radio reconnaissance of KIC 8462852 found no evidence of technology-related radio signals from the star.

Other suggestions were made as well, but as Dr. Simon of the Carnegie Institute of Science explained via email, they fell short. “Because the brief dimming events identified by Boyajian et al. were unprecedented, they sparked a wide range of ideas to explain them,” he said. “So far, none of the proposals have been very compelling – in general, they can explain some of the behavior of KIC 8462852, but not all of it.”

To put the observations made last Fall into a larger context, Montet and Simon decided to examine the full-frame photometeric images of KIC 8462852 obtained by Kepler over the last four years.  What they found was that the total brightness of the star had been diminishing quite astonishingly during that time, a fact which only deepens the mystery of the star’s light curve.

As Dr. Montet told Universe Today via email:

“Every 30 minutes, Kepler measures the brightness of 160,000 stars in its field of view (100 square degrees, or approximately as big as your hand at arm’s length). The Kepler data processing pipeline intentionally removes long-term trends, because they are hard to separate from instrumental effects and they make the search for planets harder. Once a month though, they download the full frame, so the brightness of every object in the field can be measured. From this data, we can separate the instrumental effects from astrophysical effects by seeing how the brightness of any particular star changes relative to all its neighboring stars.”

Specifically, they found that over the course of the first 1000 days of observation, the star experienced a relatively consistent drop in brightness of 0.341% ± 0.041%, which worked out to a total dimming of 0.9%. However, during the next 200 days, the star dimmed much more rapidly, with its total stellar flux dropping by more than 2%.

For the final 200 days, the star’s magnitude once again consistent and similar to what it was during the first 1000 – roughly equivalent to 0.341%. What is impressive about this is the highly anomalous nature of it, and how it only makes the star seem stranger. As Simon put it:

“Our results show that over the four years KIC 8462852 was observed by Kepler, it steadily dimmed.  For the first 2.7 years of the Kepler mission the star faded by about 0.9%.  Its brightness then decreased much faster for the next six months, declining by almost 2.5% more, for a total brightness change of around 3%.  We haven’t yet found any other Kepler stars that faded by that much over the four-year mission, or that decreased by 2.5% in six months.”

Of the over 150,000 stars monitored by the Kepler mission, Tabby’s Starr is the only one known to exhibit this type of behavior. In addition, Monetet and Cahill compared the results they obtained to data from 193 nearby stars that had been observed by Kepler, as well as data obtained on 355 stars with similar stellar parameters.

From this rather large sampling, they found that a 0.6% change in luminosity over a four year period – which worked out to about 0.341% per year – was quite common. But none ever experienced the rapid decline of more than 2% that KIC 8462852 experienced during that 200 days interval, or the cumulative fading of 3% that it experienced overall.

Montet and Cahill looked for possible explanations, considering whether the rapid decline could be caused by a cloud of transiting circumstellar material. But whereas some phenomena can explain the long-term trend, and other the short-term trend, no one explanation can account for it all. As Montet explained:

“We propose in our paper that a cloud of gas and dust from the remnants of a planetesimal after a collision in the outer solar system of this star could explain the 2.5% dip of the star (as it passes along our line of sight). Additionally, if some clumps of matter from this collision were collided into high-eccentricity comet-like orbits, they could explain the flickering from Boyajian et al., but this model doesn’t do a nice job of explaining the long-term dimming. Other researchers are working to develop different models to explain what we see, but they’re still working on these models and haven’t submitted them for publication yet. Broadly speaking, all three effects we observe cannot be explained by any known stellar phenomenon, so it’s almost certainly the result of some material along our line of sight passing between us and the star. We just have to figure out what!”

So the question remains, what accounts for this strange dimming effect around this star? Is there yet some singular stellar phenomena that could account for it all? Or is this just the result of good timing, with astronomers being fortunate enough to see  a combination of a things at work in the same period? Hard to say, and the only way we will know for sure is to keep our eye on this strangely dimming star.

And in the meantime, will the alien enthusiasts not see this as a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox? Most likely!

Further Reading: arXiv

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Focusing On ‘Second-Earth’ Candidates In The Kepler Catalog

Artist’s impression of how an infant earth might look. Credit: ESO.

The ongoing hunt for exoplanets has yielded some very interesting returns in recent years. All told, the Kepler mission has discovered more than 4000 candidates since it began its mission in March of 2009. Amidst the many “Super-Jupiters” and assorted gas giants (which account for the majority of Kepler’s discoveries) astronomers have been particularly interested in those exoplanets which resemble Earth.

And now, an international team of scientists has finished perusing the Kepler catalog in an effort to determine just how many of these planets are in fact “Earth-like”. Their study, titled “A Catalog of Kepler Habitable Zone Exoplanet Candidates” (which will be published soon in the Astrophysical Journal), explains how the team discovered 216 planets that are both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s “habitable zone” (HZ).

The international team was made up of researchers from NASA, San Francisco State University, Arizona State University, Caltech, University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of Bordeaux, Cornell University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Having spent the past three years looking over the more than 4000 entries, they have determined that 20 of the candidates are most like Earth (i.e. likely habitable).

As Stephen Kane, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Fransisco University and lead author of the study, explained in a recent statement:

“This is the complete catalog of all of the Kepler discoveries that are in the habitable zone of their host stars. That means we can focus in on the planets in this paper and perform follow-up studies to learn more about them, including if they are indeed habitable.”

In addition to isolating 216 terrestrial planets from the Kepler catalog, they also devised a system of four categories to determine which of these were most like Earth. These included “Recent Venus”, where conditions are like that of Venus (i.e. extremely hot); “Runaway Greenhouse”, where planets are undergoing serious heating; “Maximum Greenhouse”, where planets are within their star’s HZ; and “Recent Mars”, where conditions approximate those of Mars.

From this, they determined that of the Kepler candidates, 20 had radii less than twice that of Earth (i.e. on the smaller end of the Super-Earth category) and existed within their star’s HZ. In other words, of all the planets discovered in our local Universe, they were able to isolate those where liquid water can exist on the surface, and the gravity would likely be comparable to Earth’s and not crushing!

This is certainly exciting news, since one of the most important aspects of exoplanet hunting has been finding worlds that could support life. Naturally, it might sound a bit anthropocentric or naive to assume that planets which have similar conditions to our own would be the most likely places for it to emerge. But this is what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists seek out conditions which they know can lead to life.

“There are a lot of planetary candidates out there, and there is a limited amount of telescope time in which we can study them,” said Kane. “This study is a really big milestone toward answering the key questions of how common is life in the universe and how common are planets like the Earth.”

Professor Kane is renowned for being one of the world’s leading “planet-hunters”. In addition to discovering several hundred exoplanets (using data obtained by the Kepler mission) he is also a contributor to two upcoming satellite missions – the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the European Space Agency’s Characterizing ExOPLanet Satellite (CHEOPS).

These next-generation exoplanet hunters will pick up where Kepler left off, and are likely to benefit greatly from this recent study.

Further Reading: arXiv

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New System Discovered with Five Planets

A new study announced the discovery of a system hosting five transiting planets (image credit: jhmart1/deviantart).

NASA’s planet-discovering Kepler mission suffered a major mechanical failure in May 2013, but thanks to innovative techniques subsequently implemented by astronomers the satellite continues to uncover worlds beyond our Solar System (i.e., exoplanets).  Indeed, Andrew Vanderburg (CfA) and colleagues just published results highlighting a new system found to host five transiting planets, which include: two sub-Neptune sized planets, a Neptune sized planet, a sub-Saturn sized planet, and a Jupiter sized planet.

The team was able to identify the rare suite of five planets in Kepler’s extended mission data by developing algorithms that attempt to compensate for the satellite’s instability, which resulted from the mechanical failure that occurred in 2013.  A member on the team, Martti H. Kristiansen, identified the five transits in diagrams subsequently produced by their pipeline.  The image below conveys the raw and corrected data, whereupon bona fide transits are readily discernible in the latter.

Vanderburg and colleagues obtained spectra that implies the star hosting the planets (designated HIP 41378) is relatively similar to the Sun, featuring a radius and mass of 1.4 and 1.15 times that of the Sun, respectively.  However, the planets in the newly discovered system were found to complete their orbits in a comparatively short time (typically less than 1 year).    The shorter orbital periods are often a result of a selection bias that stems from efforts aimed at detecting planetary systems using the transit method, which uncovers planets by identifying the drop in brightness that occurs as an exoplanet passes in front of its host star along our sight-line.  Such transits are rare because of the impracticality of monitoring a target host star unceasingly, and because of orientation effects (i.e., a near edge-on perspective is required).   The Kepler satellite monitored HIP 41378 for 75 days.

The original Kepler mission observed a 110 square degree field for four years, and Vanderburg noted Kepler’s extended (K2) mission could survey an area up to 20 times larger, thus significantly increasing the number of objects observed.  In particular, it is hoped that a suite of new exoplanets could be discovered orbiting brighter host stars, as those identified during the original Kepler mission were typically faint.  Precise velocity measurements are difficult to achieve for fainter stars, and the data are needed to complement brightness measurements and further characterize the exoplanets discovered.  Specifically, results inferred from the transit search method are often paired with those determined from velocity (Doppler) analyses to yield the density of the planetary systems (e.g., is it a water world?).   Vanderburg noted that the system they discovered possesses amongst the brightest planet host stars from either the Kepler or K2 missions, and is an ideal target for future velocity observations, “it could therefore be detectable with spectrographs like HARPS-N and HIRES in the northern hemisphere, and HARPS and PFS in the south.

The Kepler satellite provides an advantageously large field of view, to enable the simultaneous monitoring of numerous targets, yet a disadvantage is that its resolution is rather coarse.  Indeed, the comparatively poor resolution can result in spurious transit signals (“planet impostors”), which are actually binary star systems in disguise.  “There are many things in the sky that can produce transit-like signals that are not planets, and thus we must be sure to identify what really is a planet detected by Kepler,” Stephen Bryson told Universe Today in 2013.  A pseudo planetary transit could occur owing to a chance superposition of a bright star and a fainter eclipsing binary system, whereby the objects lie at different distances along the sight-line.  The bright foreground star dilutes the typically large eclipses produced by the binary system, hence mimicking the smaller eclipses displayed by transiting planets.   Vanderburg and colleagues evaluated that possibility by obtaining higher-resolution images using the Robo-AO adaptive optics system on the 2.1-m telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory.  The adaptive optics system helps correct distortions imposed by Earth’s atmosphere, thus yielding an admirably high-resolution image that did not appear to feature contaminating stars.

Vanderburg noted optimistically that, “Discoveries such as the HIP 41378 system show the value of wide-field space-based transit surveys. The Kepler spacecraft had to search almost 800 square degrees of sky (or seven fields of view) before finding such a bright multi-planet system suitable for follow-up observations. HIP 41378 is a preview of the type of discoveries the TESS satellite (2017 launch date) will make routine.

The Vanderburg et al. 2016 study has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and a preprint is available on arXiv.  The coauthors on the study are Juliette C. Becker, Martti H. Kristiansen, Allyson Bieryla, Dmitry A. Duev, Rebecca Jensen-Clem, Timothy D. Morton, David W. Latham, Fred C. Adams, Christoph Baranec, Perry Berlind, Michael L. Calkins, Gilbert A. Esquerdo, Shrinivas Kulkarni, Nicholas M. Law, Reed Riddle, Maissa Salama, and Allan R. Schmitt.  If you’d like to help the Kepler team identify planets around other stars: join the Planet Hunters citizen science project.

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Student Discovers Four New Planets

The four new, but as yet unconfirmed, exoplanets. Image: University of British Columbia

A student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, has discovered four new exoplanets hidden in data from the Kepler spacecraft.

Michelle Kunimoto recently graduated from UBC with a Bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy. As part of her coursework, she spent a few months looking closely at Kepler data, trying to find planets that others had overlooked.

In the end, she discovered four planets, (or planet candidates until they are independently confirmed.) The first planet is the size of Mercury, two are roughly Earth-sized, and one is slightly larger than Neptune. According to Kunimoto, the largest of the four, called KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) 408.05, is the most interesting. That one is 3,200 light years away from Earth and occupies the habitable zone of its star.

“Like our own Neptune, it’s unlikely to have a rocky surface or oceans,” said Kunimoto, who graduates today from UBC. “The exciting part is that like the large planets in our solar system, it could have large moons and these moons could have liquid water oceans.”

Her astronomy professor, Jaymie Matthews, shares her enthusiasm. “Pandora in the movie Avatar was not a planet, but a moon of a giant planet,” he said. And we all know what lived there.


On its initial mission, Kepler looked at 150,000 stars in the Milky Way. Kepler looks for dips in the brightness of these stars, which can be caused by planets passing between us and the star. These dips are called light curves, and they can tell us quite a bit about an exoplanet.

“A star is just a pinpoint of light so I’m looking for subtle dips in a star’s brightness every time a planet passes in front of it,” said Kunimoto. “These dips are known as transits, and they’re the only way we can know the diameter of a planet outside the solar system.”

One of the limitations of the Kepler mission is that it’s biased against planets that take a long time to orbit their star. That’s because the longer the orbit is, the fewer transits can be witnessed in a given amount of time. The “warm Neptune” KOI 408.05 found by Kunimoto takes 637 days to orbit its sun.

This long orbit explains why the planet was not found initially, and also why Kunimoto is receiving recognition for her discovery. It took a substantial commitment and effort to uncover it. Kepler has discovered almost 5,000 planet and planet candidates, and of those, only 20 have longer orbits than KOI 408.05.

Kunimoto and Matthews have submitted the findings to the Astronomical Journal. They may be the first of many submissions for Kunimoto, as she is returning to UBC next year to earn a Master’s Degree in physics and astronomy, when she will hunt for more planets and investigate their habitability.

The fun didn’t end with her exoplanet discovery, however. As a Star Trek fan (who isn’t one?) she was lucky enough to meet William Shatner at an event at the University, and to share her discovery with Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

It makes you wonder what other surprises might lie hidden in the Kepler data, and what else might be uncovered. Might a life-bearing planet or moon, maybe the only one, be found in Kepler’s data at some future time?

You can read Kunimoto’s paper here.

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Life On Kepler-62f?

Exoplanet Kepler 62f would need an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide for water to be in liquid form. Artist's Illustration: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

A team of astronomers suggests that an exoplanet named 62f could be habitable. Kepler data suggests that 62f is likely a rocky planet, and could have oceans. The exoplanet is 40% larger than Earth and is 1200 light years away.

62f is part of a planetary system discovered by the Kepler mission in 2013. There are 5 planets in the system, and they orbit a star that is both cooler and smaller than our Sun. The target of this study, 62f, is the outermost of the planets in the system.

Kepler can’t tell us if a planet is habitable or not. It can only tell us something about its potential habitability. The team, led by Aomawa Shields from the UCLS department of physics and astronomy, used different modeling methods to determine if 62f could be habitable, and the answer is, maybe.

According to the study, much of 62f’s potential habitability revolves around the CO2 component of its atmosphere, if it indeed has an atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 can have a significant effect on the temperature of a planet, and hence, a significant effect on its habitability.

Earth’s atmosphere is only 0.04% carbon dioxide (and rising.) 62f would likely need to have much more CO2 than that if it were to support life. It would also require other atmospheric characteristics, .

The study modelled parameters for CO2 concentration, atmospheric density, and orbital characteristics. They simulated:

  • An atmospheric thickness from the same as Earth’s up to 12 times thicker.
  • Carbon dioxide concentrations ranging from the same as Earth’s up to 2500 times Earth’s level.
  • Multiple different orbital configurations.

It may look like the study casts its net pretty wide in order to declare a planet potentially habitable. But the simulations were pretty robust, and relied on more than a single, established modelling method to produce these results. With that in mind, the team found that there are multiple scenarios that could make 62f habitable.

“We found there are multiple atmospheric compositions that allow it to be warm enough to have surface liquid water,” said Shields, a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Program Fellow. “This makes it a strong candidate for a habitable planet.”

As mentioned earlier, CO2 concentration is a big part of it. According to Shields, the planet would need an atmospheric entirely composed of CO2, and an atmosphere five times as dense as Earth’s to be habitable through its entire year. That means that there would be 2500 times more carbon dioxide than Earth has. This would work because the planet’s orbit may take it far enough away from the star for water to freeze, but an atmosphere this dense and this high in CO2 would keep the planet warm.

But there are other conditions that would make 62f habitable, and these include the planet’s orbital characteristics.

“But if it doesn’t have a mechanism to generate lots of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere to keep temperatures warm, and all it had was an Earth-like amount of carbon dioxide, certain orbital configurations could allow Kepler-62f’s surface temperatures to temporarily get above freezing during a portion of its year,” said Shields. “And this might help melt ice sheets formed at other times in the planet’s orbit.”

Shields and her team used multiple modelling methods to produce these results. The climate was modelled using the Community Climate System Model and the Laboratoire de Me´te´orologie Dynamique Generic model. The planet’s orbital characteristics were modelled using HNBody. This study represents the first time that these modelling methods were combined, and this combined method can be used on other planets.

Shields said, “This will help us understand how likely certain planets are to be habitable over a wide range of factors, for which we don’t yet have data from telescopes. And it will allow us to generate a prioritized list of targets to follow up on more closely with the next generation of telescopes that can look for the atmospheric fingerprints of life on another world.”

There are over 2300 confirmed exoplanets, and many more candidates yet to be confirmed. Only a handful of them have been confirmed as being in the habitable zone around their host star. Of course, we don’t know if life can exist on other planets, even if they do reproduce the same kind of habitability that Earth has. We just have no way of knowing, yet.

That will change when instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope are able to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets and tell us something about any bio-markers that might be present.

But until then, and until we actually visit another world with a probe of some design, we need to use modelling like the type employed in this study, to get us closer to answering the question of life on other worlds.

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