Archive for December, 2009

Ringing out the Old Year

December 30th, 2009 5 comments

Image by JUNe (source)

At the beginning of the year, I made five exoplanet-related predictions:

1. A 1.75 Earth Mass planet orbiting a Main Sequence star.

2. A confirmed case of transit timing variations.

3. A transiting planet in a well-characterized multiple-planet system.

4. A transiting super-Earth (or more precisely, on the basis of observed composition, a transiting sup-Neptune).

5. 417 planets listed on

So how did I do?

Prediction 1 was just a bit on the optimistic side. At present, the extrasolar planet with the lowest Msin(i) orbiting a Main Sequence star is Gliese 581e, with Msin(i)=1.94±0.22 Earth masses. So the forecast panned out to within the 1-sigma error. (Mayor et al.’s discovery paper is here, coverage of the discovery is here, here, and here).

Prediction 2 falls just short of unambiguous fulfillment. HAT-P-13b is clearly going to exhibit transit timing variations, and soon, but as discussed in Bakos et al.’s discovery paper, it’s not clear whether they’ve already been observed.

Prediction 3 is satisfied by HAT-P-13b and c. The characterization is so good, in fact, that we’re able to effectively look inside HAT-P-13b.

Prediction 4 was doubly satisfied. First, by CoRoT-7b (a transiting super-Earth), and second, by GJ 1214b (a transiting sub-Neptune).

Prediction 5: 415 planets are listed (as of 12/31/2009) on…

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BD 08-2823b (or opportunity comes knocking)

December 28th, 2009 5 comments

I was catching up on astro-ph.EP this morning, and came across Paper #20 from the HARPS Search for Southern Extrasolar Planets. The authors report the detection of two new planets orbiting BD 08-2823, a nearby, moderately active K-dwarf. The inner planet in this new system has a mass comparable to Uranus (Msin(i)=14.4 Earth Masses) and an orbital period of 5.60 days — yet another example from the huge population of super-Earths and sub-Neptunes lying in short-period orbits around the Sun’s closest neighbors. As described in the paper, the two new planets emerged serendipitously from a thwarted attempt to identify transiting planets using the Hipparcos database.

What caught my eye about BD 08-2823b, is the fact that the parent star has not yet been monitored for transits. The a-priori probability that BD 08-2823b can be observed in transit is >7%. The star is observable from both hemispheres, at V=9.86 it’s a natural for small-telescope ground-based observers, and it’s up right now!

A successful detection is no walk in the park: The expected transit depth is of order 1.2 millimag, right at the limit of what’s been demonstrated by skilled small-telescope observers. The possible short-term activity of the parent star will demand multiple confirmations in the event that transits are indeed occurring. The current transit ephemeris is uncertain by more than a day to either side of the predicted transit midpoints (just added to the candidates table).

The transit valuation metric (described here) assigns a real-world value to the detection of a given transiting planet. It’s a way of cutting through hype, and it keeps a necessary spotlight on the fact that the cost of detecting a given transiting planet is not necessarily proportional to the scientific value of the planet detected.

If BD 08-2823b transits, its value using the metric works out to ~3 Million dollars. In other words, a detection would amount to a major discovery (something that’s getting increasingly harder to pull off, given this past year’s flood of results). In expectation, factoring in the 7% transit probability, the value is 210K. On a per-night basis, this is well over twice the value of Keck time, and yet it can be had by a good observer with a good backyard telescope. The next opportunities are centered on Jan 1st, and Jan 7th.

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December 25th, 2009 Comments off

From the short film "Dome" by Tony Misch

Here’s another remarkable YouTube video.

It’s a time-lapse movie that shows the construction of the dome for the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. The sequence was assembled by Tony Misch (Support Astronomer for Lick Observatory) who created a 3-minute visual narrative by drawing from an archive of 200,000 frames taken at 2-minute intervals between Sept. 15th, 2005, and Aug. 14th, 2006. Be sure to turn up the volume — Paul Alcott’s fine-grained mechanized score is reminiscent of Autechre, and works very well.

The APF telescope will be used by the California Planet Search (CPS) and the Earthbound Planet Search (EPS) projects to carry out high-precision radial velocity monitoring of nearby stars. It’ll start collecting data within the next few months.

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A Blue ‘606 Day

December 24th, 2009 1 comment

The traditional definition of a “Blue” moon is the third Full Moon in a season containing four Full Moons rather than the usual three. In 1946, Sky and Telescope Magazine inadvertently launched a new, somehow more modern definition of a “Blue” moon as the second Full Moon to occur in a calendar month.

On the scale of urgency, the correct definition of a Blue Moon ranks favorably with such matters of astronomical concern as whether Pluto is a planet. I thus have to admit, that I immediately dropped what I was doing to answer a reporter’s e-mail query:

I read several accounts that the phenomenon will occur on New Year’s Eve based on the recent definition. Do you know if that’s accurate?

I answered:

We here in the United States will indeed be having a Blue Moon on New Year’s Eve according to the currently popular definition of a Blue Moon as “the second Full Moon to occur in a calendar month”.

The times at which the Moon is full (which occurs when the Sun, Earth and Moon form a line as viewed from above) can be calculated with great precision and with zero ambiguity. The current set of Full Moon times are:

02 December 2009 at 07:30 GMT
31 December 2009 at 19:13 GMT
30 January     2010 at 06:17 GMT
28 February   2010 at 16:38 GMT
30 March        2010 at 02:25 GMT

GMT stands for “Greenwich Mean Time”. This is the same as Universal Time, and corresponds to the current time zone for England (where the Greenwich Observatory is located). As you can see, for GMT, there are Full Moons in December 2009.

Here in California, we’re currently on Pacific Standard Time, which is 8 hours behind GMT. That means we had a Full Moon on Dec 1st at 11:30 PM, and we’ll have the next one on New Year’s Eve at 11:13 AM in the morning, giving us a Blue Moon.

In Australia, which lies between 8 and 10.5 hours ahead of GMT, the next Full Moon will occur on New Year’s Day, 2010. Australia, therefore, will not be experiencing a Blue Moon on New Year’s Eve, 2009 (the same is true for Japan, China, etc.).

Revelers in the Far East, however, should not feel left out. If you look at the table above, you’ll see that the Far East will experience a “double Blue Moon” in 2010, in which both the months of January and March will contain two Full Moons.

Blue Moons have no astronomical significance. The “Blue Moon” is just a name in the same sense as a “Hunter’s Moon” or a “Harvest Moon”. The Blue Moons are a purely cultural artifact that arise from the juxtaposition of the celestial clockwork of the lunar and terrestrial orbits with the Gregorian Calendar, which was introduced on 24 February 1582 through a papal bull by Pope Gregory XIII, and which has now been adopted worldwide as the standard civil calendar.

Even though Blue Moons have no astronomical significance, there is something oddly appealing about events that stem from the overlap (or better, the “beating”) between the precise orbital rhythms of planets and moons, and the ebb and flow of human-centered events here on Earth. At my weblog,, I’ve been promoting a new holiday, ” ‘606 day”, which occurs every 111.43637 days when the wildly eccentric transiting planet HD 80606b makes its dramatic perihelion passage.

The ‘606 days for 2010 will occur on (adopting Universal Time):

Jan 8, 2010 at 9:49 AM
April 29, 2010 at 8:17 PM
August 19, 2010 at 6:45 AM
Dec 8, 2010 at 5:12 PM

In normal years, there are only three ‘606 days. In 2010, however, we’re lucky to have four. This “extra” ‘606 day is analogous to a blue moon.

Happy Holidays!


(For readers unfamiliar with HD 80606b and  ‘606 days, see):,,,, and

Update 1/2/10: Here’s a link to a call-in interview that I did on KPCC (L.A. Public Radio). As you’ll hear, there’s one regrettable gaffe where I say that a year contains “thirty days”… Not quite becoming of an Astronomy Professor!

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M for all and all for M

December 20th, 2009 2 comments

superEarths and subNeptunes

I’m always impressed by the efficiency with which red dwarfs pack hydrogen, the stuff of flammable zeppelins, into such a small space: Gliese 1214 is more than twice as dense as led. The density of the Sun, on the other hand, is bubblegum by comparison.

Gliese 1214b’s orbital period is a mere 1.58 days. Its 0.014 AU separation from the system barycenter is the smallest yet measured for any planet. Yet because of the high red dwarf density, the star-planet configuration is actually rather spacious. Here’s the system to scale:


It’s interesting to compare this diagram with that of a genuinely close-in planet such as HAT-P-7b, which actually has a somewhat longer 2.2 day orbital period:

At a given period, a red dwarf fills much less of a planetary orbit than does a Sun-like star. If the occurrence rate of planets at a specified period is the same for stars of different masses, then one needs to look at $\sim(M_{\odot}/M_{\rm RD})^{2/3}$ times more red dwarfs than Sun-like stars to find a given number of transits with a particular period.

Gliese 1214b lies at enough stellar radii from Gliese 1214 that its a-priori transit probability was only about 7%. The Mearth survey currently covers only ~2000 stars, and so the fact that the discovery was made so quickly was probably not luck, but rather points to the existence of a very large number of low-mass planets orbiting small stars.

Let’s face it. The big dough goes to chase potentially habitable transiting planets. With this metric, the red dwarfs come out way ahead. If red dwarfs and Sun-like stars have equal occurrence fractions for planets with Earth’s mass and insolation, then a low-mass red dwarf has roughly four times the probability of a Sun-like star of harboring a transiting potentially habitable planet. Twice the temperature means one-sixteenth the area and the square root of sixteen is four. The red dwarfs also present a number of other advantages, see e.g. here, here, and here.

Ryan Montgomery and I have a recent paper out which foreshadows what I think is the inevitability of transit surveys that use the Mearth strategy to target true-Earth analogs the habitable zones of the lowest-mass red dwarf stars. Mearth  is itself very well-positioned to expand in this direction. I also think that a lot of effort will continue to shift toward improved Doppler-velocity capability in the near-infrared (see, e.g. this recent paper by Jacob Bean and collaborators which describes the use of ammonia gas in a glass cell to imprint a forest of fixed reference lines on a K-band stellar spectrum).

A last note: Twelve-Fourteen-b is likely to become a favorite target for small-telescope observers, so I made sure to add it to the candidates table. Now that classes are done for the quarter, I’ve been going through the literature and adding or updating one or two planets a day. It’s tedious work, but I’ve noticed some interesting upcoming opportunities, which I’ll be writing about soon. For transit-themed ephemera and the latest celebrity gossip, look no further than the transitsearch twitter stream:

And a postscript: In the comments, reader cwmagee points out that the implication of the post is that the HAT-P-7 and Gl1214 diagrams are to scale which eachother, but that’s not the case. He attached a version which shows a to-scale comparison of both systems:

Red dwarfs are small!

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Arcada Fog

December 17th, 2009 Comments off
From Garth von Ahnen's Arcada Fog

On the Shoulders of Giants: from Garth von Ahnen's Arcada Fog

Adriane Steinacker teaches one of the few undergraduate-level History of Astronomy courses in the country as part of our UCSC atronomy curriculum. She sent me this Youtube link to the work of one of her students — Garth von Ahnen — who is majoring in art and minoring in astronomy.

Garth has made a remarkable video confection that weaves together an interpretation (with artistic license) of the historical trajectory by which the planetary orbits came to be understood. You’ve simply gotta watch it! In Garth’s words:

All Characters, Events, Places and Various Concepts of the structure of the Solar System are entirely non-fictitious. Any similarity to real or once real Characters, Events, Places, Concepts or Mooses are not coincidence, but both purposeful and slanderous, based on historically accurate hearsay, innuendo and exaggeration, except for Newton using a hoolah hoop, which never actually happened according to anyone.

The piece is far richer than the worn-out versions presented in the Astronomy 101 textbooks. I’ll admit I had to consult the wikipedia for the back story on Jost Bürgi. The original source of Tycho Brahe’s Pet Moose, who comes from left-field to play a starring role in von Ahnen’s version of events, is Pierre Gassendi’s 1654 biography Tycho Brahe, the man and his work (original in Latin).

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December 16th, 2009 4 comments


Of course, there are still 7 hours and 13 days left until the close of 2009, but I’ve got every confidence that the discovery of the decade has landed on the ground. The Mearth project has found a transiting 6.55 Earth-mass planet in orbit around the nearby red dwarf star GJ 1214. The parent star is bright enough, and the planet-star area ratio is large enough so that direct atmospheric characterization will be possible not just with JWST, but with HST. Incredible. I’m inspired, invigorated, envious. This discovery is a game changer.

The GJ1214 discovery is all over the news today. The coverage is deservedly laudatory, but interestingly, the most dramatic aspect of the detection received rather short schrift. This is easily the most valuable planet yet found by any technique, and the discovery, start to finish, required an investment of ~500K (along with the equivalent of 1-2 nights of HARPS time to do the follow-up confirmation and to measure the planet’s mass). By contrast, well over a billion dollars has been spent on the search for planets.

I’m milking that contrast for drama, of course. It’s true that GJ1214b is low-hanging fruit. The team with the foresight to arrive on the scene first gets to pick it. And the last thing I’m suggesting is a cut in the resources devoted to exoplanet research — it’s my whole world, so to speak. I do think, though, that Mearth epitomizes the approach that will ultimately yield the planets that will give us the answers we want. You search for transits among the brightest stars at given spectral type, and you design your strategy from the outset to avoid the impedance mismatches that produce bottlenecks at the RV-confirmation stage.

There’s a factor-of-fourteen mass gap in our solar system between the terrestrial planets and the ice giants, and so with the discovery of Gl 1214b (and the bizzare CoRoT-7b) we’re getting the “last first look” at a fundamentally new type of planet. CoRoT-7b is clearly a dense iron-silicate dominated object, but it likely didn’t form that way. Gliese 1214b’s radius indicates that it probably contains a lot of water. I think this is going to turn out to be the rule as more transiting objects in the Earth-to-Neptune mass range are detected.

So what next? With a modest increase in capability, Mearth is capable of going after truly habitable planets orbiting the very nearest stars. I think it’s time to put some money down…

Earthbound Planet Search

December 14th, 2009 15 comments

61 Vir b (simulation by J. Langton, Principia College)

61 Vir b (simulation by J. Langton, Principia College)

The ranks of the super Earths and the sub Neptunes continue to grow! In two papers that have been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, and which will be coming out in tomorrow’s astro-ph mailing, the Earthbound Planet Search team is announcing the detection of very low mass planets orbiting the nearby solar twins 61 Vir and HD 1461. (Link to paper #1, link to paper #2).

The 61 Vir system is particularly compelling. The radial velocity data for this star indicate that at least three planets are present, with an architecture that’s quite a bit more crowded than the Sun’s terrestrial planet zone:


The innermost planet, 61 Vir b, with Msin(i)~5.5 Earth masses, has a radial velocity half-amplitude K=2.15 m/s, which puts it in league with Gl581e (with K=1.9 m/s) and HD40307b (with K=2.0 m.s) as the lowest-amplitude Doppler detections to date.

We’ve adopted the Systemic Console software to analyze the Doppler velocities that are produced by the Earthbound Planet Search. I’ve written a tutorial (link here) that explores the 61 Vir dataset in detail, and shows how the planets are extracted.

parallel observing

December 13th, 2009 3 comments


As the decade draws to a close, it’s hard not to be amazed at the progress that’s been made on every research front related to extrasolar planets.

An area that I think is now ripe for progress comprises coordinated multi-observer checks for transits by super-Earth/sub-Neptune planets. There are now over thirty known extrasolar planets with Msin(i)’s less than that of Gliese 436b (which tips the scales at 23 Earth masses). Of these, only CoRoT-7b has so far been observed to transit, and it’s very probable that the current catalog of low-mass RV-detected planets contains one or more transiting members. Needless to say, it’d be very interesting to locate them.

To my knowledge, the lowest-amplitude transits that have been observed by amateur astronomers have been those by HD 149026b. This anomalously dense Saturn-mass planet induces a photometric transit depth of roughly 0.4%.  State-of-the-art amateur detections show the transit very clearly. Here’s an example (the observer was Luboš Brát of the Czech Republic) taken from the TRESCA database:


The identification of transits by small planets certainly won’t be a picnic. Super-Earths and  sub-Neptunes orbiting G and K stars present targets that are intrinsically much tougher than HD 149026. Unless the parent star is a red dwarf, the expected transit depths will generally be less than 0.1%, and it’ll be extremely difficult for a single small-telescope observer to obtain a definitive result.

On the other hand, if a platoon of experienced observers mount a coordinated campaign on a single star, then there’s a possibility that a startlingly good composite light curve might be obtained. In theory, if one were to combine the results from sixteen independent observers, one could obtain a light curve of the equal signal-to-noise as the HD 149026b curve shown above, but for a planet with a transit depth of only 0.1%.

I spent time this weekend making sure that the transit predictions for the known RV-detected low-mass planets are as up-to-date and accurate as possible. I found that HD 7924 is a good candidate star with which to test a coordinated observing strategy. The star harbors a low-mass RV-detected planet was announced earlier this year (discovery paper here):


HD 7924b has Msin(i)~10 Earth Masses, a P=5.3978d orbital period, and a 6.7% a-priori chance of being observable in transit. The (folded) photometry in the discovery paper is of quite high quality, and shows that the star is not photometrically variable. The photometry also indicates that transits with depth greater than 0.05% are probably not occurring. The parent star, HD 7924 is a K-dwarf, with a radius of something like 78% that of the Sun, which means that if the planet is a sub-Neptune it’ll have a central transit depth of order 0.075%, whereas if it is a rocky object, the depth will likely be less than 0.05%. The 1-sigma uncertainty on the time of the transit midpoint is about 0.35 days. The parent star has V=7.2, and with Dec=+76 deg, it’s circumpolar for high-latitude observers (RA=01h 21m).

Here are the next predicted transit midpoints (dates and times are UT):

HJD        Y    M  D  H  M
2455182.04 2009 12 16 12 51
2455187.01 2009 12 21 12 14
2455192.41 2009 12 26 21 48
2455197.81 2010  1  1  7 21
2455203.20 2010  1  6 16 54
2455208.60 2010  1 12  2 28

Because HD 7924b’s period is known to an accuracy of 0.0013 days (2 minutes), participating Northern-hemisphere observers can obtain data during any of the upcoming opportunities. Their light curves, once standardized, can in theory be stacked to obtain increased precision. It would be very interesting to get a sense of the practical limits inherent in such an approach. I think the best way to test the limits is to give the observations a try!

that golden age

December 8th, 2009 6 comments


I’m nostalgic for ’97, when the discovery of a new extrasolar planet was literally front-page news. What’s now cliche was then fully viable poetic sweep. Epicurus and his multitude of worlds. Bruno burning at the stake. In that frame of mind, it’s fascinating to go back and read John Noble Wilford’s extended New York Times piece, written at the moment when the number of known extrasolar planets equaled the number of planets in our own solar system.

Some of the hyperbole still seems fresh, especially with regard to the frequency and diversity of planetary systems:

And the discoveries may be only beginning. One recent study suggested that planets might be lurking around half the Milky Way’s stars. Astronomers have already seen enough to suspect that their definition of planets may have to be broadened considerably to encompass the new reality. As soon as they can detect several planets around a single star, they are almost resigned to finding that the Sun’s family, previously their only example, is anything but typical among planetary systems.

At the recent Porto conference, the Geneva team not only reiterated their claims regarding the frequency of low-mass planets, but actually upped their yield predictions. According to a contact who heard Stephane Udry’s talk, the latest indication from HARPS is that between 38% (at the low end) and 58% (at the high end) of nearby solar-type stars harbor at least one readily detectable M<50 Earth-mass planet. This is quite extraordinary, especially given the fact that were the HARPS GTO survey located 10 parsecs away and observing the Sun, our own solar system (largely in the guise of Jupiter’s decade-long 12-m/s wobble)  would not yet be eliciting any particular cause for remark.

It also looks like planets beyond the snowline are quite common. In yesterday’s astro-ph listing, there’s a nice microlensing detection of a cold Neptune-like planet orbiting a ~0.65 solar mass star with a semi-major axis of at least 3 AU. The microlensing detections to date indicate that Neptune-mass objects are at least three times as common as Jupiter mass objects when orbital periods are greater than five years or so. Microlensing detections are an extremely cost-effective way to build up the statistics of the galactic planetary census during belt-tightening times. Much of the work is done for free by small telescope observers.


Yet another dispatch pointing toward a profusion of planets comes from an article posted last week on astro-ph by Brendan Bowler of the IfA in Hawaii. Work that he’s done with John Johnson and collaborators indicates that the frequency of true gas giant planets orbiting intermediate-mass stars (former A-type stars like Sirius that are now in the process of crossing the Hertzsprung gap) is a hefty 26% within ~3 AU.

An embarrassment of riches? Certainly, the outsize planetary frequency means that the cutting-edge of the planet-detection effort will be shifting toward the Sun’s nearest stellar neighbors, as these are the stars that offer by far the best opportunities for follow-up with space-based assets such as HST, Spitzer, JWST et al.

As competition for ground-based large-telescope RV confirmation of run-of-the-mill planet transit candidates orbiting dim stars heats up, the threshold magnitude (at a given bandpass) at which stars become largely too faint to bother with will grow increasingly bright. We’re talking twelve. Maybe nine. Pont et al., in their discovery paper for OGLE-TR-182b refer to this threshold as the “Twilight Zone” of transit surveys:

The confirmation follow-up process for OGLE-TR-182 necessitated more than ten hours of FLAMES/VLT time for the radial velocity orbit, plus a comparable amount of FORS/VLT time for the transit lightcurve. In addition, several unsuccessful attempts were made to recover the transit timing in 2007 with the OGLE telescope, and 7 hours of UVES/VLT were devoted to measuring the spectroscopic parameters of the primary. This represents a very large amount of observational resources, and can be considered near the upper limit of what can reasonably be invested to identify a transiting planet.