Explosion of the exoplanets

The size of Kepler's first five planet discoveries
First five confirmed planets discovered by Kepler mission Image via Wikipedia

There is little doubt that it can be done, but what is so compelling about the search for worlds that orbit other stars?

By the end of the 21st century’s first decade 500 such exoplanets had been discovered, ranging from super gas giants almost 10 thousand times the mass of the Earth to a few that are comparable in size to our home world. At present the records of size and orbital radius are biased by the relative ease

of detecting large bodies over that of Earth-sized objects. Another bias is the greater chance of observing the change in luminosity of a star as one of its planets passes between us and the star – a transit – if the planet’s orbital period is short, being close to the star. The majority of known exoplanets are less than about 8 times the Earth’s orbital radius (1 astronomical unit or AU) away from their star, although some truly huge bodies have been spotted that are up to a thousand times more remote from a star than ours is.

Labeled illustration of the Kepler spacecraft
Kepler spacecraft. Image via Wikipedia

The rate of discovery is set to burgeon now that data from NASA’s Kepler exoplanet-finding mission, launched in 2009, is producing data (Reich, E.S. 2011. Beyond the stars. Nature, v. 470, p. 24-26). The 0.95 m Kepler space telescope gazes continually at a patch of sky containing 150 thousand Milky Way stars, many of which are like the Sun. It uses the transit method, and because it is fixed on only one star field it can potentially pick up the variation of stars’ luminosity due to transiting planets that are about the size of the Earth and larger. The computations are, unsurprisingly, massive and any dips in the light curves for pixels that represent individual stars have to be confirmed by other methods or by Kepler detecting repeats of the fluctuation. One drawback is that the transit method only provides the radius of a planet and its orbital period. Mass is needed to work out an exoplanet’s density and that requires another method using the red-shift of a star due to the gravitational effect of a planet causing it to wobble; a technique fraught with difficulties and best applied to dwarf red stars. The density is important for discriminating silicate-rich exoplanets from gas-liquid bodies. The main aim of planet finders is to find those around the same size and mass as the Earth that orbit a star at a distance where they would be warm enough for liquid water to exist but not so warm that it existed only as a vapour: in the so-called ‘Goldilocks zone’.

There was an initial flurry of excitement in the press in 2010 when a scientist on the Kepler programme was misinterpreted while giving a conference presentation that resulted in headlines that hundreds of distant Earths had already been discovered in the experiment’s first year. So far Kepler has only 15 confirmed planets to its credit that range from 800 times to twice the Earth’s radius all with orbits less than that of the Earth around the Sun. Nonetheless, a couple orbit within their star’s Goldilocks zone. So there is a way to go before real excitement is justified, but Kepler data will undoubtedly be used to seek funds for other planet-dedicated programmes that can fill in the gaps and perhaps confirm the existence of distant worlds that bear some resemblance to ours. Out of Kepler’s 1235 candidate detections since launch, 68 would be Earth-sized if confirmed (Shiga, D. 2011. What’s an alien solar system like? New Scientist, v. 209 (26 February 2011 issue) p. 6-7). For such remote detection to suggest an exoplanet on which life has evolved demands that atmospheric composition can be deduced from spectra of electromagnetic radiation from the body itself: a far more difficult undertaking that finding and weighing. Free atmospheric oxygen, so far unique to the Earth, is an obvious target. However, its absence would not rule out life that did not use photosynthesis to split water molecules in making living matter, and there are plenty of life forms here that do that.

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