Posts Tagged ‘sub-Neptunes’

Red Dwarf Metallicities

January 17th, 2010 11 comments

A core prediction of the core accretion model for giant planet formation is that the frequency of readily detectable giant planets should increase with both increasing stellar metallicity and with increasing stellar mass:

It’s now well established that the above diagram is zeroth-order correct, but until fairly recently, the conventional wisdom held that there is little evidence for a strong planet-metallicity correlation among the handful M-dwarf stars (for example, Gliese 876) that are known to harbor giant planets. One is then naturally led to speculate that the odd giant planets in a systems like Gliese 876 might be the outcome of gravitational instability rather than core accretion.

The profusion of molecular lines in the atmospheres of M dwarfs make it hard to determine their metallicities using the techniques of spectral synthesis that work well for hotter stars like the Sun. Fortunately, though, the red dwarfs’ legendary stinginess provides another opportunity for assessing metallicity. Red dwarfs are so thrifty, and they evolve so slowly, that every single one that’s ever formed has barely touched its store of hydrogen. With all the fuel gauges pegged to full, a critical parameter’s worth of confusion is removed. Red dwarfs of a particular mass should form a well-defined one-parameter sequence in the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, and that parameter should be metallicity. If one can accurately plot a particular low-mass star on a color-magnitude diagram, then there should exist a unique and high-quality mapping to both the star’s mass and its metallicity. Physically, an increase in metallicity leads to a higher photospheric opacity, which provides an effective layer of insulation for a star. Add metals to a red dwarf and it will move down and to the right in the Hertzsprung Russell diagram.

Because of the nightmarish complexity of red dwarf atmospheres, it’s not easy to find the calibration that allows one to make the transformation between an observed absolute magnitude and color index (e.g. M_K and V-K) to the stellar mass and metallicity. In 2005, however, Xavier Bonfils and his collaborators made a breakthrough by employing a simple should’ve-thought-of-that-myself technique: Binary stars generally stem from a common molecular cloud core, and so the members of a binary pair should thus generally have very similar metallicities. In particular, if you measure the metallicity of an F, G, or K binary companion to an M-dwarf, then you can assume that the M-dwarf has the same metallicity. Do this often enough, and you can infer the lines of constant M-dwarf metallicity on a color-magnitude diagram. With the calibration in place, metallicity determinations for field red dwarfs are simply a matter of reading off the nearest iso-metallicity locus. Here’s the key diagram from the Bonfils et al. paper:

The puzzling outcome of the Bonfils et al metallicity calibration was that the rare giant-planet bearing M-dwarfs such as Gliese 876 and Gliese 849 didn’t appear to be particularly metal rich, and that worked to undermine confidence in the core accretion picture. One would naively expect that a low-mass disk will need all the help it can get in order to build giant planet cores before the gas is gone. If anything, the planet-metallicity correlation should be strongest among the M-dwarfs.

Important recent progress was made last year by John Johnson and Kevin Apps, who published a reevaluation of Bonfil et al’s. isometallicity loci in the color-magnitude diagram. Johnson and Apps point out that application of the Bonfils et al. calibration produces an aggregate of local M-dwarf stars that have a significantly lower average metallicity than that for the local FGK stars. There’s little reason to expect such a dichotomy, which implies that the Bonfils et al. correlation may be systematically underestimating metallicity by roughly a factor of two. No small potatoes!

Johnson and Apps adjusted the calibration to bring the metallicities of the local M dwarfs into line with the metallicities of the local FGK dwarfs. Here’s a slightly adapted version of their key diagram:

With the revised calibration, Gliese 876 turns up with a metallicity twice that of the Sun, and there is excellent evidence that the planet-metallicity correlation holds strongly for the M dwarfs that harbor relatively massive planets. Furthermore, it’s hard to argue with the two recent papers (one, two) from the California Planet Survey which report the detection of relatively massive planets orbiting two nearby M dwarfs, both of which have extremely high metallicities with the revised calibration.

The statistics are still small-number, but there’s a strong hint that the planet-metallicity correlation for Neptune and sub-Neptune mass planets orbiting M-dwarfs is stronger than it appears to be at FGK (where it’s effectively non-existent). Gliese 176, and Gliese 436, for example, are both quite metal-rich. I bet that a survey like Mearth could jack up its yield by shading its telescope visits to favor the high-metallicity stars on the observing list…

Indeed, if we plot Gliese 1214 (V=15.1±0.6, K=8.78±0.02, parallax=0.0772±0.0054”, distance modulus=0.562±0.16) in comparison to the stars in the local volume, it looks like Gliese 1214 has of order twice solar metallicity if we adopt the nominal values for V,K and the distance. That’s very intriguing…

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…

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.

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).

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.