Posts Tagged ‘Mearth’

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!

Categories: worlds Tags: , , ,


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…

lithium-induced speculations

November 22nd, 2009 1 comment

Lithium Depletion

Israelian et al’s Nature paper on the planet-stellar lithium correlation (featured in last week’s post) caused quite a stir in the community. The depletion of lithium in the atmosphere of a solar-type star seems to be a prerequisite for the presence of a detectable planetary system. Here’s the paper’s plot again, this time, with Alpha Cen A added for effect. lithiumwalphacen

Had Israelian et al.’s paper come out a decade ago, much of the ensuing hubub would have focused on the fact that low lithium abundance is an effective signpost to planetary systems. Nowadays, though, mere detection of new planets is passé. Everyone knows there are tons of planets out there. Focus is shifting to finding the lowest-mass (and preferably transiting) planets around the brightest M, K, and G main sequence stars in the Sun’s neighborhood. There is a short, highly select, list of worlds that have been, and will eventually be, followed up to great advantage with HST, Warm Spitzer, and JWST.  All of the Sun’s most alluring stellar neighbors are under heavy and ongoing scrutiny, and in fact,  it’s these particular stars (in the form of the HARPS GTO list) that enabled discovery of the planet-lithium correlation.

So planet-finding utility aside, the intense interest in the planet-lithium effect stems from the fact that it’s guaranteed to be imparting an important clue to the planet-formation process.

With over 400 planets known, clear populations are starting to emerge. It’s remarkable that the strength of the lithium-planet correlation seems to be largely independent of the masses and periods of the planets themselves. The mass-period diagram for planets, on the other hand, shows that there are at least three distinct concentrations of planet formation outcomes:


It’s important to keep in mind that Israelian et al.’s correlation holds over only a very narrow range of stellar temperature. The M-dwarfs (Gliese 581, Gliese 876), the K-dwarfs (HD 69830, Alpha Cen B), and the F-dwarfs (Upsilon Andromedae) all fall outside the band of utility. This dovetails nicely with standard models of stellar evolution that suggest the amount of Lithium depletion in stars with masses very close the the Sun (that is, stars falling in the narrow effective temperature range of the above plot) depends sensitively on both the efficiency of convection and also on rotational mixing. That is, the stars that show the lithium-planet effect, are exactly the stars where subtle differences in properties seem to generate a big effect on lithium abundance.

After writing last week’s post, I got an e-mail from Jonathan Irwin (of MEarth fame) who makes several interesting points:

The low lithium could be more of a coincidence resulting from the long-lived circumstellar disks that are presumably needed to form planets.

Mediation of the stellar rotation rates by long-lived disks is thought to be responsible for generating the wide dispersion in rotation rates observed in open clusters around 100Myr age, and there have been suggestions (e.g. Denissenkov et al.’s paper that appeared on astro-ph 2 weeks ago) that the slowly-rotating stars evolve developing some degree of decoupling of the rotation rates of their radiative core and convective envelope, whereas the rapidly-rotating stars evolve more like solid bodies.

Bouvier (2008) has suggested that the shear at the radiative convective boundary resulting from this could mix lithium into the interior more efficiently, and thus could result in lower lithium for stars that were slow rotators, preserving evidence of their rotational history even though the final rotation rates all converge by the solar age.  Some evidence for this last part exists in the form of a correlation between rotation and lithium in young open clusters such as the Pleiades.

A hypothesis along these lines seems quite appealing to me. As long as a protoplanetary disk is present, and as long as its inner regions are sufficiently ionized, then there’ll be a connection between the stellar magnetic field and the magnetic field of the disk. To a (zeroth) degree of approximation, the equations of ideal MHD allow us to envision the situation as consisting of a rapidly rotating star connected to a slower-rotating disk by lot of weak rubber bands. The net effect will be to slow down the stellar rotation to bring it into synch with the rotation at the inner edge of the disk.

Trying to sound like a tough-guy, I stressed the importance of predictions in last weeks post. If Irwin’s hypothesis is correct, then the formation of the Mayor et al. 2008 planet population is associated with disks that contain lots of gas, even in regions interior to R~0.1 AU. I’d thus expect that the “super Earths” are actually “sub Neptunes”, and that we can expect considerable H-He envelopes for the majority of these planets.

Another speculative prediction concerns the stars that aren’t depleted in lithium. In Irwin’s picture, these stars had short-lived disks and lost their gas relatively rapidly. This shouldn’t hinder the formation of terrestrial planets, but one would expect that the final configurations of the rocky planets would sport higher eccentricities, as there was little or no gas to damp the orbits down during the final stages of terrestrial planet accretion (see this paper for more on this).

scenario three

March 30th, 2009 1 comment


Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon is well known to givers of planet talks as one of the original proponents of physical cosmogony. Further fame accrues to his long-distance tangle with Thomas Jefferson over the size and the valor of the North American fauna. Buffon also made interesting contributions to probability theory, including the very sensible proposition that 1/10,000th is the smallest practical probability [source].

I think it’s reasonable to apply Buffon’s rule of thumb in discussing scenarios for the detection of the first potentially habitable extrasolar planet. If a scenario has a less than 10^-4 chance of unfolding, then it’s not worth expounding on in a web log post.

There’s no getting around the fact that the extrasolar planets are a long way away. Traveling at just under the speed of light, one reaches Alpha Cen Bb during Obama’s second term, and Gliese 581c, the extrasolar planet with the highest current value on the habitable planet valuation scale, lies 20 light years away. For practically-minded types such as myself, it’s depressing to think of the realistic prospects (or lack thereof) of actually reaching these worlds in a lifetime. And why spend trillions of dollars to visit Gliese 581 c when Venus is basically right next door?

It’s imperative to know the addresses of the nearest potentially habitable planets, though, and this is a goal that should be reached within roughly a decade or two. Barring a strike with some household name like Alpha Centauri or Tau Ceti, it’s a reasonable bet that the closest million-dollar world is orbiting a red dwarf.

The general suitability of red dwarf planets is often viewed with suspicion. Atmosphere-eroding flares, tidally spin-synchronized orbits, and gloomy formation-by-accretion scenarios provide ample material for space-age Jeremiahs. But first things first. With what frequency are Earth-sized T_eff~300K planets actually to be found in orbit around red dwarfs?

If planets form from analogs of the so-called Minimum Mass Solar Nebula, then the answer is quite well established: almost never.

If, however, instead of scaling down from the Minimum Mass Solar Nebula, we scale up from the proto-Jovian, proto-Saturnian and proto-Uranian disks, then the prospects are quite good. Ryan Montgomery and I have an Icarus preprint out which looks in detail at the consequences of an optimistic planet formation scenario for red dwarfs. Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of our theory is that it will be put to the test over the next decade. If hefty terrestrial planets are common around red dwarfs, then the currently operating ground-based MEarth survey will have an excellent chance of finding several examples of million-dollar wolds during the next several years, and the forthcoming TESS Mission will quite literally clean up.

In the spirit of Buffon, though, for the exact specifics of scenario three, it’s fun to probe right down to the limit of practical odds. Consider: An Earth orbiting a star at the bottom of the Main Sequence produces a transit depth that can approach 1%. If Barnard’s Star harbors an optimally sized and placed planet, then its value is a cool 400 million dollars. Such a planet would have an orbital period of about 13 days, and an a-priori transit probability of roughly 2%. I estimate a 1% chance that such a planet actually exists, which leads to a 1 in 5000 chance that it’s sitting there waiting for a skilled small-telescope observer to haul it in. In expectation, it’s worth $87,200, more than the equivalent of a Keck night, to monitor Barnard’s star at several milli-magnitude precision for a full-phase 13 days. That’s $280 dollars per hour. There are few better uses to which a high-quality amateur telescope could be put during those warm and clear early-summer nights.

Categories: worlds Tags: , , ,

Give M a break

March 23rd, 2009 1 comment

Last weekend, I got e-mail from an A-list planet hunter who wrote in support of the little guys:

Why punish beloved M-dwarfs?

The last factor, currently written in terms of V, might be rewritten in terms of a less pejorative magnitude, like I or Z. Most stars in the Galaxy put their best (and brightest) foot forward at 1um!

Hard-working red dwarfs, like Barnard’s star or Proxima Centauri get the short end of the stick in the Oklo terrestrial planet valuation formula. Red dwarfs put out the bulk of their radiation in the near-infrared, rather than the optical, but dollar value is pegged to apparent magnitude in the V-band.

This leaves me in a position similar to that of a company spokesman trying to justify Wall Street bonuses.

“The fact of the matter, is that as a society, our planet-hunting values and priorities have been traditionally tied to the optical range of the spectrum. If we examine the resources that have been deployed to date, over a billion dollars have been spent on satellite-based planet-hunting programs that monitor stellar output in visible light. In the same way that an executive’s compensation is tied to the value that he or she brings to shareholders, a terrestrial planet’s value should therefore be tied to V-band magnitude.”

Flimsy, I admit. Therefore, in the interest of fairness, the first planet-hunting group or individual that discovers a planet worth USD 1M with Z-band apparent magnitude replacing V-band will receive an T-shirt.

Categories: worlds Tags: , ,


February 12th, 2009 3 comments

Image Source: Mearth Live.

Update 4 : Feb. 14 2009, 07:12:00 UT

The first reports are coming in. Gregor Srdoc in Croatia got a lightcurve through most of the night for HD 80606 combined with HD 80607. No sign of a transit, but the data is relatively noisy due to imperfect weather.

Veli-Pekka Hentunen reports that weather conditions in Finland were bad generally, and were specifically bad in Varkaus.

At least four sets of observations from various locations in Arizona are currently underway, including both the 40” and the 1.3m at USNO Flagstaff under the able command of Paul Shankland.

Jonathan Irwin reports that data from Mearth through 5 UT shows no sign of an egress.

Ohio State Grad Student Jason Eastman reports on his remote Demonex observations (from the comments page):

Halfway through the night…

We started observing at UT 02:30 in the V band. No sign of an egress at the ~0.005 mag level.

That link will be updated with the entire night’s data in the morning.

So it’s not looking particularly good for a transit, but I’m really happy that data is coming in. We’ll have a definitive answer sometime tomorrow.

Thanks to everyone who observed. It’s really cool how a planet 190 light years away can bring observers all over the globe into a common mission.

Update 3 : Feb. 13 2009, 23:29:00 UT

We’re now closing in on the moment of inferior conjunction, which hopefully will wind up being the midpoint of a central transit. The current weather in Europe looks like it’s clear for observers in Finland and Northern Italy, so it’s now quite likely that we’ll get a definitive answer from the campaign.

No word yet on whether an ingress was observed, but Jonathan Irwin did send a nice light curve from last night’s baseline run with Mearth. He writes:

Here’s our entire night of data (about 11 hours) from one telescope, using 80607 as the comparison star. Raw and binned x12 (about 5 minutes per bin). We are getting rms scatter of about 1.6 times Poisson with this fairly quick reduction.

There is usually a slight offset when the target crosses the meridian (data point 777) due to flat-fielding error, that I have not removed in this – over the ~20 arcsec separation of the pair it’s pretty small. There is also a bit of a blip there as my guide loop recovers its lock after crossing – still needs a little tuning :)

Fingers crossed for tonight!

Update: Clear Skies in Arizona. Dave Charbonneau writes:

Clear skies. You can even watch the images in real time, and see how many
MEarth scopes are on ’606…

Update 2 : Feb. 13 2009, 17:04:00 UT

It’s now the middle of the night in the Far East, and the transit window has opened. The weather in Japan looks a little spotty, but Southern China is in the clear.

Observers in Arizona reported good weather last night, but the forecast is a little iffy for tonight.

In addition, I just got an e-mail (UT 17:48) from Gregor Srdoc in Croatia, who is on the sky under quite good conditions just after nightfall…

Update 1 : Feb. 13 2009, 06:03:03 UT

There’s about a half-day left until the possible start of the ingress. On the map above, I’ve marked the locations of confirmed observers with small red dots. HD 80606b is 190 light years above the spot labeled with the orange circle.

Observers in the US are currently taking data of both HD 80606 and its binary companion, HD 80607. It’s always good to have an out-of-transit baseline photometric time series.

Dave Charbonneau checked in with a status report:

MEarth is ready. You can watch us in real time at

If the roof is closed, it is cloudy.

The up-to-the-minute stop-action animations showing the disconcertingly reptilian movements of the telescopes are completely mesmerizing. Mearth (pronounced “mirth”) is located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins in Arizona, and spends most of its nights searching for potentially habitable terrestrial planets transiting nearby M dwarfs. The telescopes have a list of ~2000 nearby red dwarf stars. Each star is subjected to repeated visits of ~30-45 minute duration. The idea is to catch transiting planets in progress and to broadcast the information to larger telescopes that can obtain immediate real-time photometric confirmation of a discovery. (For a more detailed overview of Mearth, see Irwin, Charbonneau, Nutzmann & Falco 2008.)

Update 0 : Feb. 12 2009, 22:47:40 UT

I’ll be posting updates on the global HD 80606b transit campaign as I get them, with newer updates going to the top of this post.

A number of observers have indicated that they’ll be on the sky. Right now, it looks like telescopes are confirmed for Finland, Israel, Italy, Japan and the US. Given the vagaries of the weather, however, it would be great if we can get as much coverage as possible. As Vince Lombardi would have put it, “We’re looking at 15%, so if you can get 1%, get out there and give 110%!”

Everyone is encouraged to comment as the campaign progresses (click the number next to the post title to access the discussion page). I’ve lifted the restriction that only allows registered oklo users to comment, but all comments are now held for moderation, in order to keep the Viagra contingent off the air.