Distance & Speed Of Sun’s Orbit Around Galactic Centre Measured

Using the initial data released by the Gaia observatory, a team of Canadian astrophysicists have produced refined estimates on the distance between our Sun and the center of the galaxy.

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What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

The ESO’s recent announcement that they have discovered an exoplanet candidate orbiting Proxima Centauri – thus confirming weeks of speculation – has certainly been exciting news! Not only is this latest find the closest extra-solar planet to our own Solar System, but the ESO has also indicated that it is rocky, similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits within the star’s habitable zone.

However, in the midst of this news, there has been some controversy regarding certain labels. For instance, when a planet like Proxima b is described as “Earth-like”, “habitable”, and/or “terrestrial“, there are naturally some questions as to what this really means. For each term, there are particular implications, which in turn beg for clarification.

For starters, to call a planet “Earth-like” generally means that it is similar in composition to Earth. This is where the term “terrestrial” really comes into play, as it refers to a rocky planet that is composed primarily of silicate rock and metals which are differentiated between a metal core and a silicate mantle and crust.


This applies to all planets in the inner Solar System, and is often used in order to differentiate rocky exoplanets from gas giants. This is important within the context of exoplanet hunting, as the majority of the 4,696 exoplanet candidates – of which 3,374 have been confirmed (as of August 18th, 2016) – have been gas giants.

What this does not mean, at least not automatically, is that the planet is habitable in the way Earth is. Simply being terrestrial in nature is not an indication that the planet has a suitable atmosphere or a warm enough climate to support the existence of liquid water or microbial life on its surface.

What’s more, Earth-like generally implies that a planet will be similar in mass and size to Earth. But this is not the same as composition, as many exoplanets that have been discovered have been labeled as “Earth-sized” or “Super-Earths” – i.e. planets with around 10 times the mass of Earth – based solely on their mass.

This term also distinguishes an exoplanet candidate from those that are 15 to 17 masses (which are often referred to as “Neptune-sized”) and those that are have masses similar to, or many times greater than that of Jupiter (i.e. Super-Jupiters). In all these cases, size and mass are the qualifiers, not composition.


Ergo, finding a planet that is greater in size and mass than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant, does not mean it is terrestrial. In fact, some scientists have recommended that the term “mini-Neptune” be used to describe planets that are more massive than Earth, but not necessarily composed of silicate minerals and metals.

And estimates of size and mass are not exactly metrics for determining whether or not a planet is “habitable”. This term is especially sticky when it comes to exoplanets. When scientists attach this word to extra-solar planets like Proxima b, Gliese 667 Cc, Kepler-452b, they are generally referring to the fact that the planet exists within its parent star’s “habitable zone” (aka. Goldilocks zone).

This term describes the region around a star where a planet will experience average surface temperatures that allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. For those planets that orbit too close to their star, they will experience intense heat that transforms surface waster into hydrogen and oxygen – the former escaping into space, the latter combining with carbon to form CO².

This is what scientists believe happened to Venus, where thick clouds of CO² and water vapor triggered a runaway greenhouse effect. This turned Venus from a world that once had oceans into the hellish environment we know today, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, atmospheric density if off the charts, and sulfuric acid rains from its thick clouds.

For planets that orbit beyond a star’s habitable zone, water ice will become frozen solid, and the only liquid water will likely be found in underground reservoirs (this is the case on Mars). As such, finding planets that are just right in terms of average surface temperature is intrinsic to the “low-hanging fruit” approach of searching for life in our Universe.

But of course, just because a planet is warm enough to have water on its surface doesn’t mean that life can thrive on it. As our own Solar System beautifully demonstrates, a planet can have the necessary conditions for life, but still become a sterile environment because it lacks a protective magnetosphere.

This is what scientists believe happened to Mars. Located within our Sun’s Goldilocks zone (albeit on the outer edge of it), Mars is believed to have once had an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. But today, atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is only 1% that of Earth’s, and the surface is dry, cold, and devoid of life.

The reason for this, it has been determined, is because Mars lost its magnetosphere 4.2 Billion years ago. According to NASA’s MAVEN mission, this resulted in Mars’ atmosphere being slowly stripped away over the course of the next 500 million years by solar wind. What little atmosphere it had left was not enough to retain heat, and its surface water evaporated.

By the same token, planets that do not have protective magnetospheres are also subject to an intense level of radiation on their surfaces. On the Martian surface, the average dose of radiation is about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is about a fifth of what people are exposed to here on Earth in the course of a year.

We can expect similar situations on extra-solar planets where a magnetosphere does not exist. Essentially, Earth is fortunate in that it not only orbits in a pretty cushy spot around our Sun, but that its core is differentiated between a solid inner core and a liquid, rotating outer core. This rotation, it is believed, is responsible for creating a dynamo effect that in turn creates Earth’s magnetic field.

However, using our own Solar System again as a model, we find that magnetic fields are not entirely uncommon. While Earth is the only terrestrial planet in our Solar System to have on (all the gas giants have powerful fields), Jupiter’s moon Ganymede also has a magnetosphere of its own.

Similarly, there are orbital parameters to consider. For instance, a planet that is similar in size, mass and composition could still have a very different climate than Earth due to its orbit. For one, it may be tidally-locked with its star, which would mean that one side is permanently facing towards it, and is therefore much warmer.

On the other hand, it may have a slow rotational velocity, and a rapid orbital velocity, which means it only experiences a few rotations per orbit (as is the case with Mercury). Last, but certainly not least, its distance from its respective star could mean it receives far more radiation than Earth does – regardless of whether or not it has a magnetosphere.

This is believed to the be the case with Proxima Centauri b, which orbits its red dwarf star at a distance of 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. It also orbits Proxima Centauri with an orbital period of 11 days, and either has a synchronous rotation, or a 3:2 orbital resonance (i.e. three rotations for every two orbits).

Because of this, the climate is likely to be very different than Earth’s, with water confined to either its sun-facing side (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation it receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.

So what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? The short answer is, it can mean a lot of things. And in this respect, its a pretty dubious term. If Earth-like can mean similarities in mass, size, composition, and can allude to the fact that planet orbits within its star’s habitable zone – but not necessarily all of the above – then its not a very reliable term.

In the end, the only way to keep things clear would be to describe a planet as “Earth-like” if it in fact shows similarities in terms of size, mass and composition, all at the same time. The word “terrestrial” can certainly be substituted in a pinch, but only where the composition of the planet is known with a fair degree of certainty (and not just its size and mass).

And words like “habitable” should probably only be used when chaperoned by words like “potentially”. After all, being within a star’s habitable zone certainly means there’s the potential for life. But it doesn’t not necessarily entail that life could have emerged there, or that humans could live there someday.

And should these words apply to Proxima b? Perhaps, but one should consider the fact that the ESO has announced the detection of a exoplanet using the Radial Velocity method. Until such time as it is confirmed using direct detection methods, its remains a candidate exoplanet (not a confirmed one).

But even these simple measures would likely not be enough to erase all the ambiguity or controversy. When it comes right down to it, planet-hunting – like all aspects of space exploration and science – is a divisive issue. And new findings always have a way of drawing criticism and disagreement from several quarters at once.

And you thought Pluto’s classification confused things! Well, Pluto has got nothing on the exoplanet database! So be prepared for many years of classification debates and controversy!

Further Reading: NASA Exoplanet Archive

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A Planet With A 27,000 Year Orbit & That’s Just Where The Strangeness Begins

The star system CVSO 30, which was found to have two exoplanets with extreme orbital periods. If you look closely, you can see 30c to the upper left of the star. Credit: ESO

Every planet in the Solar System has its own peculiar orbit, and these vary considerably. Whereas planet Earth takes 365.25 days to complete a single orbit about our Sun, Mars takes almost twice as long – 686.971 days. Then you have Jupiter and the other gas giants, which take between 11.86 and 164.8 years to orbit our Sun. But even with these serving as examples, astronomers were not prepared for what they found when they looked at CVSO 30.

This star system, which lies some 1200 light years from Earth, has been found in recent years to have two candidate exoplanets. These planets, which are many times the mass of Jupiter, were discovered by an international team of astronomers using both the Transit Method and Direct Imaging. And what they found was very interesting: one planet has an orbital period of less than 11 days while the other takes a whopping 27,000 years to orbit its parent star!

In addition to being a big surprise, the detection of these two planets using different methods was an historic achievement. Up until now, the vast majority of the over 2,000 exoplanets discovered have been detected thanks to indirect methods. These include the aforementioned Transit Method, which detects planets by measuring the dimming effect they cause when crossing their parent star’s path, and the Radial Velocity Method, which measures the gravitational effect planets have on their parent star.

In 2012, astronomers used the Transit Method to detect CVSO 30b, a planet with 5 to 6 times the mass of Jupiter, and which orbits its star at a distance of only 1.2 million kilometers (by comparison, Mercury orbits our Sun at a distance of 58 million kilometers). From these characteristics, CVSO 30b can be described as a particularly “hot-Jupiter”.

In contrast, Direct Imaging has been used to spot only a few dozen exoplanets. The reason for this is because it is typically quite difficult to detect the light reflected by a planet’s atmosphere due it being drowned out by the light of its parent star. It can also quite demanding when it comes to the instrument involved. Still, compared to indirect methods, it can be more effective when it comes to exploring the remote regions of a star.

Thanks to the efforts of an international team of astronomers, who combined the of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) Calar Alto Observatory, CVSO 30c was spotted in remote regions around its parent star, orbiting at a distance of around 666 AU.

The details of the discovery were published in a paper titled “Direct Imaging discovery of a second planet candidate around the possibly transiting planet host CVSO 30“. In it, the researchers – who hail from such prestigious institutions as the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the Jena Observatory, the European Space Agency and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy – explained the methods used to find the exoplanet, and the significance of its discovery.

As Tobias Schmidt – of the University of Hamburg, the Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory Jena, and the lead author of the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“[30b and 30c] are both unusual on their own. CVSO 30b is the first transiting planet around a star as young as 2.5 million years. Published in 2012, all previously detected transiting planets were older than few hundred million years… It has been a surprise to find a planetary mass companion at 662 AU, or 662 times the distance from Earth to the Sun, from a primary star having only about 0.4 solar masses. According to the standard model, planets form in disks around the star. But none of the observed disks around such low-mass stars is large enough to form such an object.”

In other words, it is surprising to find two exoplanet candidates with several times the mass of Jupiter (aka. Super-Jupiters) orbiting a star as small as CVSO 30. But to find that two exoplanets with such a disparity in terms of their respective distance from their star (despite being similar in mass) was particularly surprising.

Relying on high-contrast photometric and spectroscopic observations from the Very Large Telescope, the Keck telescopes, and the Calar Alto observatory, the international team was able to spot 30c using a technique known as lucky imaging. This process, which is used by ground-based telescopes, involves many high-speed, quick exposure photos being taken to minimize atmospheric interference.

What they found was an exoplanet with a wide orbit that was between 4 and 5 Jupiter masses, and was also very young – less than 10 million years old. What’s more, the spectroscopic data indicated that it is unusually blue for a planet, as most other planet candidates of its kind are very red. The researchers concluded from this that it is likely that 30c is the first young planet of its kind to be directly imaged.

They further concluded that 30 c is also likely the first “L-T transition object” younger than 10 million years to be found orbiting a star. L-T transition objects are a type of brown dwarf – objects that are too large to be considered planets, but too small to be considered stars. Typically they are found embedded in large clouds of gas and dust, or on their own in space.

Paired with its companion – 30 b, which is impossibly close to its parent star – 30 c is not believed to have formed at its current position, and is likely not stable in the long-term. At least, not where current models of planetary formation and orbit are concerned. However, as Prof. Schmidt indicated, this offers a potential explanation for the odd nature of these exoplanets.

“We do think this is a very good hint,” he said, “that the two objects might have formed regularly around the star at a separation comparable to Jupiter or Saturn’s separation from the Sun, then interacted gravitationally and were scattered to their current orbits. However this is still speculation, further investigations will try to prove this. Both have about the same mass of few Jupiter masses, the inner one might be even lower.”

The discovery is also significant since it was the first time that these two detection methods – Transit and Direct Imaging – were used to confirm exoplanet candidates around the same star. In this case, the methods were quite complimentary, and present opportunities to learn more about exoplanets. As Professor Schmidt explained:

“Both Transit method and radial velocity method have problems finding planets around young stars, as the activity of young stars is disturbing the search for them. CVSO 30 b was the first very young planet found with these methods, currently a hand full of candidates exist. Direct imaging, on the other hand, is working best for young planets as they still contract and are thus self-luminous. It is therefore great luck that a far out planet was found around the very first young star hosting a inner planet…

“However, the real advantage of transit and direct imaging methods is that the two objects can now be investigated in greater detail. While we can use the direct light from the imaging for spectroscopy, i.e. split the light according to its wavelength, we hope to achieve the same for the inner planet candidate. This is possible as the light passes through the atmosphere of the planet during transits and some of the elements are absorbed by the composition material of the atmosphere. So we do hope to learn a lot about planet formation, thus also formation of the early Solar System and about young planets in particular from the CVSO 30 system.”

Since astronomers first began began to find exoplanet candidates in distant star systems, we have come to learn just how diverse our Universe really is. Many of the discoveries have challenged our notions about where planets can form around their parent star, while others have showed us that planets can take many different forms.

As time goes on and our exploration of the local Universe advances, we will be challenged to find explanations for how it all fits together. And from that, new and more comprehensive models will no doubt emerge.

Further Reading: IAA, arXiv

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250 Years of Planetary Detection in 60 Seconds

Early astronomers realized some of the “stars” in the sky were planets in our Solar System, and really, only then did we realize Earth is a planet too. Now, we’re finding planets around other stars, and thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, we’re able to find planets that are even smaller than Earth. This great […]