Archive for June, 2008


June 29th, 2008 1 comment

Download 1017 x 761 px version here.

This dry range is near Gabbs, Nevada.

I remember stopping at a bar in Gabbs on a Saturday night in October 1993. We were low on gas, having foolishly skipped a possibility to fill up at Walker Lake. We’d been driving all day. In the deserted gravel lot, the sky was freezing black and spangled with stars.

I drank a beer and talked to the only other patron — a grizzled Vietnam veteran who worked at the molybdenum mine. The word molybdenum sounded strange, exotic. In 1993, the price of molybdenum was in free fall, and in 1994, it would reach a low of $3,510 per metric ton ($1.59 per pound). The mine was laying off workers and was in danger of closing.

The gas station in Gabbs was closed. The bartender called the nearest possibility, the old Pony Express station Middlegate, 50 miles north. “You’re in luck, they’ve got gas.”

The current spot price for Molybdenum oxide is 33.50 dollars per pound, a less-noticed example from the many changes that make 1993 seem increasingly a part of a bygone millennium. Hundreds of extrasolar planets, e-mail inboxes that routinely receive hundreds of messages (mostly spam) per day, and this uneasily growing realization that the raw materials may be the deciding factor after all.

I wonder whether the extrasolar planets will ever have a flatly practical economic value. The scramble to detect new planets often feels like a land rush, but is there a real possibility that we’ll eventually pack up and go to these systems that are showing up in the correlation diagrams? Do the economics of interstellar travel ever work out?

In this context, it’s slightly disconcerting to remember that the molybdenum has already made the interstellar journey (see e.g. here). The most abundant Mo isotope is molybdenum-98, which constitutes 24.14% of Earth’s molybdenum. These atoms were produced both via the s-process, which takes place in red giant stars, and where a chain of slow neutron captures is interspersed with beta decays, and by the r-process, which occurs in supernovae.

The fact that the resources made the trip for free makes it seem a little more likely that we may well be able to get more, but only if we pay…

Categories: worlds Tags:

in situ?

June 17th, 2008 2 comments

Man! Like everyone else over the past 24 hours, I’ve been thinking about that new crop of Superearths.

The conventional wisdom (over which I was waxing enthusiastic a mere 36 hours ago) holds that Mayor’s new population of planets are essentially failed giant planet cores which began forming at considerably larger radii in the protostellar disk and then experienced significant inward migration as they built themselves up. In this scenario, the Superearths arise from more or less the same sort of process (but with a different outcome) that formed the giant planets in our own solar system.

What’s struck me, however, is the odd resemblance between a multiple-planet system like HD 40307 and the regular satellite systems of the Jovian planets. In both cases, the characteristic orbital period is of order a week, and the system mass ratio (satellites-to-central-body) is of order 2 parts in 10,000.

In the Ward-Canup theory, the regular satellites of the Jovian planets are thought to have formed more or less in situ in gas-starved disks (see here for more discussion). If the new population of planets is somehow the result of an analogous formation process, then they really will be superEarths, as opposed to subNeptunes, and as a consequence, their transit depths will be small.

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June 16th, 2008 4 comments

This morning, I awoke to an inbox full of indications that there was indeed plenty of drama in the club.

From one of our correspondents:

He threw out dozens of new systems, very graphically, on slips of paper, like playing cards, floating down on a pile on the screen. Very dramatic. But no HD numbers on those slips!

He predicts 1 to 1.5 Earth sensitivity by around 2010 (extrapolating a trend).

He has been monitoring about 400 FGK slow rotators since 2004, with HARPS.

Can do 0.5 m/s today, 0.1 m/s in near future.

Noise sources are astroseismology, which settles to about 0.1 m/s after 15 minutes of integration, and a worse one, star spots, which settle to about 0.5 m/s after 15 minutes but do not drop lower, even though theory says level should drop to about 0.1 m/s.

He says he has 40 new candidates in the 30-50 day period range, and mass less than 30 Earths.

Nevertheless, after the drama, he did report 3 Neptune-type systems, all focused on the Super Earth theme of the meeting.

The centerpiece was definitely HD 40307, a deep southern K2.5 V star only 40 light years distant, with a metallicity roughly half that of the Sun. It has three detected planets, with Msin(i)’s of 4.2, 6.9, and 9.2 Earth masses, and corresponding periods of 4.31, 9.62, and 20.45 days. It’s fascinating that these planets are close to, but aren’t actually in a 4:2:1 resonance. This is really a remarkable detection.

With 40 candidates in the pocket, the Geneva team does, however, seem to be keeping some of their powder dry, perhaps in anticipation of a low-mass transit. Here’s a link to the ESO press release, which has triggered 93 news articles and counting.

In the press release image, HD 40307d is definitely all that and a bag of chips. Puffy white clouds, azure seas, continents, soft off-stage lighting…

Categories: detection Tags:

There’s plenty of room at the bottom

June 16th, 2008 1 comment

On December 29th 1959 at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech, Richard Feynman gave a remarkable talk entitled “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” in which he foresaw the impact that nanotechnology could have on materials science. At the beginning of the lecture he remarked (in a vernacular that dates him to the Eisenhower era):

I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down. Such a man is then a leader and has some temporary monopoly in a scientific adventure.

Over the past several years, the party line has been that the radial velocity method for exoplanet detection is similarly equipped with the potential to go down and down in planet mass, and to continue with at least a respectable share of the lead in the ongoing scientific adventure.

That said, the Doppler returns so far this year have been underwhelming. If we look at the latest planet-mass vs year of discovery diagram on (no pulsar planets, no microlenses), the detection rate seems to be holding up, but the crop of announced low-mass planets is nonexistent. Of the 22 new planets so far in ’08 that have been detected via radial velocity, 16 were initially detected by the transit surveys.

What’s up with that?

We’re seeing core accretion in action. The baseline prediction of the core accretion theory for giant planet formation is that once a planet reaches a crossover threshold, where the mass of gas and solids is equal, then rapid gas accretion ensues, and the planet grows very rapidly to Jovian size or even larger. When the galactic planetary census is complete, one thus expects a relative dearth of planets with masses in the range between ~20 and ~100 Earth masses. In the freewheelingly unrefereed forum of a blog post, I can go ahead and dispense with an analysis that takes all the thorny completion issues and selection biases into account and state unequivocally that:

(Courtesy as usual of the statistics plot generators)

Planets that do make the grade and blow up to truly Jovian size are the beneficiaries of protostellar disks that had solid surface densities that were well above the average. At a given disk mass, a disk with a higher metallicity has a higher surface density of solids, which is the reason for the planet-metallicity correlation. Disks with higher oxygen and silicon fractions relative to iron will also have high solid surface densities, which is the reason for the planet-silicon correlation. And M stars have trouble putting their Jovian cores together fast enough to get the gas while it’s still there, which is the source of the planet-stellar mass correlation.

As one pushes below Neptune-mass, these correlations should all get much weaker, and the fraction of producing stars should go way up. It’s hard, at the ~10% success rate level for a protostellar disk, to make a Jupiter, and it should be straightforward, at (I’ll guess) the 50% success level for a protostellar disk to make a Neptune.

The gap between Neptune and Saturn is the source of the current RV planet drought. At given velocity precision (in the absence of stellar jitter), it takes ~25x more velocities to detect a Neptune than to detect a Saturn. To make progress, it’s necessary to stop down the number of stars in the survey and focus on as many old, quiet K-type stars as possible. We’re talking HD 69830.

The indications at Harvard were that the Geneva group has been doing just that. In a few hours, Michel Mayor is scheduled to give the lead-off talk at the Nantes meeting on extrasolar super Earths. I’ll post a rundown of what he has to say just as soon as the Oklo foreign correspondents file their reports…

Categories: detection Tags: