Posts Tagged ‘TESS’

Transitsearch back on the air

December 6th, 2009 Comments off


A quick addendum to the previous post. After a rather lengthy and undeserved “vacation”, is back on the air. The old website is running as a placeholder, and updated content will follow on soon.

I’ve moved the front-end of the transitsearch site to the hosting service that runs, so the real URL is By Dec. 10th, the domain name transfer will be complete, and the old address should properly redirect.

Further updates can be had by subscribing to’s twitter stream: We’re planning events to surround the next ’606 day, and we’re also planning to organize a campaign for the HAT-P-13c transit opportunity that’s centered on April 12, 2010.


June 10th, 2009 6 comments

Earth occulting the Sun, seen from Apollo 12 (source).

The year 1995 fades into increasingly ancient history, but I vividly remember the excitement surrounding Mayor and Queloz’s Nature article describing the discovery of 51 Peg b. Back in the day, the idea of a Jovian planet roasting in a 4.2-day orbit was outlandish to the edge of credibility.

In the five years following the Mayor-Queloz paper, four additional Doppler-wobble planets with periods less than a week (Ups And b, Tau Boo b, HD 187123b, and HD 75289b) were announced. Each one orbited close enough to its parent star to have a significant a-priori probability of transiting, and by mid-1999, the summed expectation for the number of transiting planets grew to N=0.68. Each new planet-bearing star was monitored for transits, and each star came up flat. Non-planet explanations for the radial velocity variations gained credence. The “planets” were due to stellar oscillations. The “planets” were actually mostly brown dwarfs or low-mass stars on orbits lying almost in the plane of the sky.

The discovery of HD 209458b, the first transiting extrasolar planets was therefore a huge deal. Instantly, the hot Jupiters gained true planetary status. There’s a huge leap from a mass-times-a-sine-of-an-inclination to density, temperature, composition, weather. 209458 was the moment when the study of alien solar systems kicked into high gear.

At the moment, we’re within a year of getting news of the first Earth-mass planet orbiting a solar-type star. It’s effectively a coin flip whether the announcement will come from Kepler or from the radial velocity surveys. In either case, the first Earth will likely be too hot for habitability, but within a few years we’ll be seeing genuinely habitable, multi-million dollar worlds. Kepler, for one, will deliver them in bulk.

Enter the TESS mission.

Here’s the scoop: The TESS satellite consists of six wide-field cameras placed on a satellite in low-Earth orbit. If it’s selected, then during its two-year mission, it will monitor the 2.5 million brightest stars with a per-point accuracy of 0.1 millimagnitude (one part in ten thousand) for the brightest, most interesting stars. It will find all of the transiting Jovian and Neptune-mass planets with orbital periods of less than 36 days, and it can make fully characterized detections of transiting planets with periods up to 72 days. Where transits are concerned, brighter stars are better stars. TESS will locate all the bright star transits for Neptune-mass planets and up, and equally important, it will find the best examples of large transiting terrestrial planets that exist.

TESS also provides an eminently workable path to the actual characterization of a potentially habitable planet. Included in the 2.5 million brightest stars are a substantial number of M dwarfs. Detailed Monte-Carlo simulations indicate that there’s a 98% probability that TESS will locate a potentially habitable transiting terrestrial planet orbiting a red dwarf lying closer than 50 parsecs. When this planet is found, JWST (which will launch near the end of TESS’s two year mission) can take its spectrum and obtain resolved measurements of molecular absorption in the atmosphere.

If TESS is selected for flight, we’re literally just five years away from probing the atmospheres of transiting planets in the habitable zone.

Categories: detection Tags: , ,

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: , , ,