Posts Tagged ‘CoRoT-7b’

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!

the last first look

October 5th, 2009 6 comments

As is usually the case, there’s been little or no shortage of interesting developments in the field of extrasolar planets. The biggest recent news has been the announcement at the Barcelona conference of a definitive mass for the ultra-short period transiting planet CoRoT-7b. It weighs in at a mere 4.8 Earth Masses (copy of the Queloz et al. preprint here).

Recall that CoRoT-7b caused quite a stir earlier this year with its weird properties. The planet’s year is a fleeting twenty hours and twenty nine minutes, and it induces a tiny transit depth of 0.03%. Unfortunately, the parent star presents a less-than-ideal target for high-precision radial velocity work. It has spots that come and go, and its stellar activity produces frustratingly noisy Doppler measurements. As a result, at the time of CoRoT-7b’s initial announcement, there was no definitive measurement of the planet’s mass.

That’s changed, however, with an unprecedentedly all-out deployment of the HARPS spectrograph. From the Queloz et al. preprint:

A total of 106 measurements between 30 and 60 minute exposure time each were obtained over 4 months, and with sometimes 3 measurements being taken on the same night.

Now in my notoriously biased opinion, such observational enthusiasm is perhaps best reserved for stars such as Alpha Cen B, but a fair argument can be made that the massive investment of time did pay off. Remarkably, the radial velocity data set shows that there are two short-period planets in the CoRoT-7 system. The outer companion, which doesn’t transit, has a period of 3.7 days and at least eight Earth masses. Most dramatically, by combining the mass and radius measurements of CoRoT-7b, one arrives at a density of 5.5 grams per cubic centimeter, essentially identical to that of the Earth, suggesting that the planet is largely composed of refractory materials. (I hesitate to apply the term “rocky” to the CoRoT-7c landscape for the same reason that I’d refrain from describing the Amazon Delta as “icy”.)

In a very real sense, the HARPS campaign on CoRoT-7b has given us our last first look at a fundamentally new category of planet — that is, a world lying in the factor-of-fourteen mass gap spanned by Earth and Uranus. And, from exo-political point of view, the stakes surrounding this discovery were very high. The first density measurement of a planet in this category could just as easily have been made by teams combining high-precision Doppler measurements with either (1) Warm Spitzer, (2) ground-based photometry, (3) Kepler, (4) MOST, (5) HST, or (6) CoRoT. So I can imagine that there was a certain impetus underlying the scheduling of that huge block of HARPS time.

The discovery could, however, still be waiting to be made. Despite all the effort with HARPs, there remains a hefty 70% error on the density determination. This means that there’s a ~16% chance that CoRoT-7b is actually less dense than Neptune.

I’ll go out on a limb: CoRoT-7b’s density will turn out to be anomalously high. More than 90% of “super Earths” will turn out to be “sub-Neptunes” as far as their density is concerned.


February 4th, 2009 4 comments

From a cell phone picture transmitted by an agent

The photo above is grainy, but what’s truly remarkable is that the depth of the dip is only 0.03%. Earth transiting in front of the Sun as seen from afar blocks roughly 0.01% of the Sun’s light. Look at the signal-to-noise of the bottom composite-average curve.

I can sure empathize with the CoRoT team. Their symposium date was set up long ago. Kepler is launching in a few weeks. The results of the Doppler surveys are suggesting that super-Earths with orbital periods of 50 days or less (with correspondingly high transit probabilities) are present around 30% of solar-type stars. Ground-based photometry is pushing below 0.5 millimagnitudes at 1-minute cadence. The pressure is on. And there’s an absolutely fascinating candidate planet that isn’t quite yet out of the oven, due to a paucity of high-precision radial velocities that would pin down the mass. What do you do?

I agree! You go ahead and announce.

Everything about CoRoT-7b reemphasizes the fact that planets are wont to turn up in every corner of parameter space to which observations are sensitive. In this case, a V=11 K0V star in the direction of the galactic anti-center displays 176 individual 1.5-hour 0.3 mmag photometric dips with a strict 0.854 day periodicity. These measurements suggest a 1.7 Earth-radii planet with a 20-hour year — a world that makes 51 Peg b look like Fargo North Dakota.

The abstract for Daniel Rouan’s talk at the meeting (transcribed from the cell phone photograph) describes the procedures that the CoRoT team has implemented to rule out the various false positives that can plague transit surveys. This gives a sense of the amount of follow-up work that needs to be done in order to secure a planet as small as this one (also, see comments section for this post, for many additional details):

To qualify/falsify the interpretation of the observed transits, we have considered different alternative interpretations: (1) transit of a main sequence star in front of a giant star — rejected by the measured log(g) of the target; (2) a grazing eclipse by a stellar companion — rejected by the radial velocity measurements (3) a weak Background Eclipsing Binary that would be inside the target mask — partially rejected by on/off transit photometric observations performed from the ground at angular distance from the target larger than 2 arcsec, and by high-resolution imaging at distances larger than 0.3 arcsec. (4) a triple system made of the target star (K0V) and a faint star (M5V) eclipsed by a giant planet or a dark stellar companion — rejected by the study of the transit colours which are the same as those of the main target. is quoting a significantly uncertain mass of 0.035 Jupiter masses (11 Mearth) for the planet, a figure that could have been arrived at via assumptions about the density and/or limits on the radial velocity detection. An 11 Earth-mass planet would induce an eminently detectable K=8 m/s RV signal, so it’s a bit odd that a firmer estimate of the mass isn’t available yet. The CoRoT “galactic anticenter” field is located in Monoceros, at RA~06h 45m, DEC~+0d, meaning that the candidate star is currently visible to HARPS (at air mass <2) all through the first half of the night. also states an age of 1.1 Gyr for the star, so youth, with its attendant stellar activity, could possibly be making it tough to get good velocity precision.

In any case, it’s a remarkable detection, and will be hugely influential as soon as the mass is confirmed. The planet is orbiting at only four stellar radii — with the star filling nearly a thousand square degrees of sky…

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