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A signal amplified

February 25th, 2017 1 comment

There was something a little disorienting about TRAPPIST-1 vaulting into the public consciousness to fleetingly become one of the largest news events in the world. The small-telescope detection of temperate Earth-sized planets orbiting stars at the bottom of the main sequence was a frequent topic during oklo.org’s first ten years. In looking back over the early articles, one of the very first posts (from 11/29/2005) looks quaint, naive and prescient all at once:

We know that planets aren’t rare, and by now, with the tally over at the extrasolar planet encyclopedia poised to blast past 200, the announcement of a newly discovered run-of-the-mill Jupiter-sized planet barely raises the collective eyebrow.

The headline that everyone is anticipating is the discovery, or better yet, the characterization of a truly habitable world — a wet, Earth-sized terrestrial planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a nearby star. Who is going to get to this news first, and when?

299 million dollars of smart money says that Kepler, a NASA-funded Discovery mission currently scheduled for launch in June 2008, will take the honors. The Kepler spacecraft will fly in an Earth-trailing 377.5 day orbit, and will employ a 1-meter telescope to stare continuously (for at least four years straight) at a patchwork of 21 five-square-degree fields of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Every 15 minutes, the spacecraft will produce integrated photometric brightness measurements for ~100,000 stars, and for most of these stars, the photometric accuracy will be better than one part in 10,000. These specs should allow Kepler to detect transits of Earth-sized planets in front of Solar-type stars.

Kepler has a dedicated team, a solid strategy, and more than a decade of development work completed. It’s definitely going to be tough to cut ahead of Bill Borucki in line. Does anyone else stand a chance?

Practitioners of the microlensing technique have a reasonably good shot at detecting an Earth-mass planet before Kepler, but microlensing-detected planets are maddeningly ephemeral. There are no satisfying possibilities for follow-up and characterization. Doppler RV has been making tremendous progress in detecting ever-lower mass planets, but it seems a stretch that (even with sub-1 meter per second precision) the RV teams will uncover a truly habitable world prior to Kepler, although they may well detect a hot Earth-mass planet.

There is one possibility, however, whereby just about anyone could detect a habitable planet (1) from the ground, (2) within a year, and (3) on the cheap. Stay tuned…

In marveling at the avalanche of media attention during the last week, from the front pages of the New York Times and the New York Post, to NPR push notifications, to NASAwatch sleuthing out the story, to a co-opt of the front page of Google, I was struck by the fact that viewed externally, this is really just the massive amplification, complete with distortion — see the NASA/JPL go-to image — of an exceedingly faint signal. TRAPPIST-1 continually bathes the Earth with 14 Joules per second of energy. Over the course of the few weeks it took to detect the seven planets, its transits cumulatively decreased this share of the light by the energy equivalent of a single tic tac.

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Not Fade Away

February 22nd, 2017 3 comments

With the likes of an Earth-mass world orbiting Proxima Centauri and a staggeringly photorealistic better-than-the-real-thing rendering of Kepler 186f, it’s gotten increasingly difficult to mount a planet discovery press conference that achieves adequate signal-to-noise. Nonetheless, the new Gillon et al Nature paper detailing seven transiting, roughly Earth-sized, roughly Earth-mass planets orbiting a faint nearby red dwarf is a jaw-dropping document.

There’s a lot to like. The system is a pleasingly scaled-up version of the Jovian satellite systems and a pleasingly scaled-down version of the Kepler multiple-transit systems. It supports the empirical observation that the default satellite/planet formation process in the vicinity of objects ranging in mass from Uranus all the way up to the Sun tends to separate ~2×10^-4 of the system mass into a region large enough to delineate an average density of ~2×10^-5 g/cm^3. It’s not at all clear why this should be the case.

There’s a great deal of interest in planets that are more or less at room temperature. This means that, empirically speaking, the default planet-formation process selects (the Sun notwithstanding) the bottom of the main sequence as one’s best a-priori bet for Earth-mass planet with an Earth-like temperature. I’ll resist here the temptation to engage in holy hokey habitable zone talk. Chances of life, plate tectonics, proper ocean depths, etc. Let’s stick to the facts. What we do know is that if more than one of the Trappist-1 planets harbor advanced civilizations, and if the stock markets on those planets trade correlated securities with tight bid-offer spreads, then there will be excellent interplanetary latency arbitrage opportunities.

2MASS J20362926-0502285, now much better known as TRAPPIST-1, straddles the boundary between the lowest mass main sequence stars and the highest mass brown dwarfs. Depending on precisely what its mass and metallicity turn out to be, it could either be arriving at self-sustaining core hydrogen fusion, which would make it a main sequence star (about a 60% chance) or it could be currently achieving its peak brown dwarf luminosity and bracing for a near-eternity of cooling into obscurity (about a 40% chance). Let’s assume that TRAPPIST-1 is a full-blown star. If that’s the case, it’s got a twelve trillion year main-sequence life span ahead of it. Here’s what it’s evolution on the HR diagram will look like, in comparison to other low-mass objects:

An object with solar composition and 0.08 solar masses never turns into a red giant. As time goes on, it maintains a near-constant radius, and slowly burns nearly all of its hydrogen into helium. In roughly 10 trillion years, TRAPPIST-1 will reach a maximum temperature of ~4000K, pushing it briefly toward K-dwarf status for a few tens of billions of years, before eventually running out of fuel and fading out as a degenerate helium dwarf.

At the present moment, the spin angular momentum of TRAPPIST-1 is very close to the summed angular momentum of its seven known planets (both total, to one significant figure, 10^47 g cm^2 s^-1.). The planets, owing to their tight orbital radii, are safe from passing white dwarfs for quadrillions of years in the galactic potential, and are immune to the usual risk of red giant engulfment. A long, slow tidally mediated drama will unfold in which the planets will somehow act out, with resonances and tidal decay, punctuated by Roche-radius destructions and re-accretions, the dictate that the minimum energy configuration places all the system mass at the center and all the system angular momentum out at infinity.

A long-term buy.

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Black Hole Disasters

February 19th, 2017 No comments


Given the current situation, the destruction of planet Earth through an encounter with a black hole is a low-probability scenario that should elicit relatively little concern.

Nonetheless, the industry surrounding black holes and their various associated activities generates a non-negligible economic contribution. By way of setting scale, an article in this week’s New York Times points to the statistic that the total US commercial honeybee pollination industry has an annual value of order $500 million, with slim margins and the ongoing specter of colony collapse disorder. The movie Interstellar, by contrast, generated $675 million in receipts based on a $165 million production budget. Having seen the movie, I would hazard a guess that a significant, if not decisive, factor in the box office draw centered on the numerical calculation of ray bundle propagation through the curved spacetime of a spinning Kerr black hole, as described by James, Tunzelmann, Franklin & Thorne (2015).

Figure 16 from James et al. (2015)

Activities as diverse as the technology development and staffing of LIGO, the awarding of multi-million dollar prizes, and lurid television documentaries are all parts of the thriving Black-Holes-as-a-Business paradigm. Sure, I’m being a little facetious here, but not really… It’s a real phenomenon.

As far as planets are concerned, disasters associated with black hole encounters can be divided into three very distinct categories. Throughout the visible universe, over the course of cosmic time, a very large number of Earth-sized planets have come to untimely demise by crossing the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. Rather preposterously, this was the premise underlying a recent episode of History Channel’s The End. As a practical matter, we would have of order 500 million years of advance notice if a rogue M87-style supermassive black hole — presumably ejected during a 3-body encounter in a massive galaxy merger — were impinging on the Local Group. When an inhabited planet enters an isolated billion solar mass Schwarzschild black hole, there is a period measured in hours where one sails comfortably numbed through a bizarre GR-mediated light show. Things get bad only in the last thirty minutes or so before the encounter with the singularity.

A second genre of black hole disaster occurs whenever a planet encounters an ordinary Cygnus X-1 style black hole, or indeed, any black hole with a mass ranging from roughly planetary heft to millions of solar masses. In these events, a planet is generally tidally shredded before encountering the event horizon, and from an on-the-ground perspective, the histrionics fall broadly into the type experienced by the planet Theia ~4.51 billion years ago. In both the near term, as well as the extremely long term, Earth stands effectively zero chance of succumbing to black hole-mediated tidal destruction.

Primordial black holes might actually pose a non-absurdist threat. While still fully speculative, it has been proposed that density fluctuations in the early universe created black holes, and in the 10^17 to 10^26 gram mass range there is currently little actual constraint on their existence. Papers have been published that elucidate the seismic disturbances that would result, for example, from the collision of a 10^15 gram black hole traveling at 200 km/s through the Earth.

Generation of seismic waves in Earth following the passage of a 10^15 gram black hole with speed ~200 km/sec From Figure 2 of Luo et al. 2012.

In general, an encounter with a primordial black hole provides a hydrogen bomb-level of devastation at the entry and exit points, but no further consequences as the marauding black hole speeds away into interstellar space. In the early 1970s, a black hole encounter was briefly a credible model (at the got published in Nature level of credibility) for explaining the Tunguska impact.

A singularly unfortunate scenario results if Earth manages to capture a primordial black hole into an orbit with perigee inside Earth. This is hard, but not impossible, if the black hole is a member of a binary pair. The physics of the capture would be similar to the event that is thought to have given rise to Triton in orbit around Neptune. For those interested in details, I attach here some irresponsible order-of-magnitude notes that outline what I believe would happen if Earth were to collect an Enceladus-mass black hole in its thrall.



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60,949 Doppler Velocities of 1,624 Stars

February 13th, 2017 Comments off

Mauna Kea from Mana Road

Time slips past. The discovery of 51 Pegasi b and the heady early days of planet detection are now more than two decades gone. The pulsar planets have been known for a full quarter century, and N=10,000 is the next milestone for the catalogs.

It’s fair to say that there have been amazing discoveries in twenty years, culminating with an Earth-mass planet in a temperate orbit around the closest star to the Sun. And there’s even significant funding to jump start the design of a probe that can go there.

Yet in the background, as the breakthroughs rolled in, the Keck I Telescope was gradually accumulating Doppler measurements of hundreds of nearby Sun-like stars with HD designations and magnitudes measured in the sevens and eights. This data is as important for what it shows (scores of planets) as for what it doesn’t show (a profusion of planets with Jupiter-like masses and orbits). There are several reasons why our Solar System is unusual, and Jupiter is one of them.

From Rowan+ 2016

The Lick Carnegie Exoplanet Survey has just released a uniformly reduced compendium of 60,949 precision Doppler Velocities for 1,624 stars that have been observed using the iodine cell technique with HIRES at the Keck-I telescope, with an accompanying paper to appear in the Astronomical Journal. The velocities are all freely available on line here, ready to be explored with the Systemic Console. They contain hundreds of intriguing, possibly planetary signals, including a strong hint of a super-Earth orbiting Lalande 21185, the fourth-closest stellar system.

Stay tuned…

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