Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Rife with hype, exoplanet study needs patience and refinement (PNAS)

19.02.2014
Imagine someone spent months researching new cities to call home using low-resolution images of unidentified skylines.

The pictures were taken from several miles away with a camera intended for portraits, and at sunset. From these fuzzy snapshots, that person claims to know the city’s air quality, the appearance of its buildings, and how often it rains.


Exoplanet transiting in front of its star. Princeton’s Adam Burrows argues against drawing too many conclusions about such distant objects with today’s technologies. Photo credit: ESA/C. Carreau

This technique is similar to how scientists often characterize the atmosphere — including the presence of water and oxygen — of planets outside of Earth’s solar system, known as exoplanets, according to a review of exoplanet research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A planet’s atmosphere is the gateway to its identity, including how it was formed, how it developed and whether it can sustain life, stated Adam Burrows, author of the review and a Princeton University professor of astrophysical sciences.

But the dominant methods for studying exoplanet atmospheres are not intended for objects as distant, dim and complex as planets trillions of miles from Earth, Burrows said. They were instead designed to study much closer or brighter objects, such as planets in Earth’s solar system and stars.

Nonetheless, scientific reports and the popular media brim with excited depictions of Earth-like planets ripe for hosting life and other conclusions that are based on vague and incomplete data, Burrows wrote in the first in a planned series of essays that examine the current and future study of exoplanets. Despite many trumpeted results, few “hard facts” about exoplanet atmospheres have been collected since the first planet was detected in 1992, and most of these data are of “marginal utility.”

The good news is that the past 20 years of study have brought a new generation of exoplanet researchers to the fore that is establishing new techniques, technologies and theories. As with any relatively new field of study, fully understanding exoplanets will require a lot of time, resources and patience, Burrows said.

“Exoplanet research is in a period of productive fermentation that implies we’re doing something new that will indeed mature,” Burrows said. “Our observations just aren’t yet of a quality that is good enough to draw the conclusions we want to draw.

“There’s a lot of hype in this subject, a lot of irrational exuberance. Popular media have characterized our understanding as better than it actually is,” he said. “They’ve been able to generate excitement that creates a positive connection between the astrophysics community and the public at large, but it’s important not to hype conclusions too much at this point.”

The majority of data on exoplanet atmospheres come from low-resolution photometry, which captures the variation in light and radiation an object emits, Burrows reported. That information is used to determine a planet’s orbit and radius, but its clouds, surface, and rotation, among other factors, can easily skew the results. Even newer techniques such as capturing planetary transits — which is when a planet passes in front of its star, and was lauded by Burrows as an unforeseen “game changer” when it comes to discovering new planets — can be thrown off by a thick atmosphere and rocky planet core.

All this means that reliable information about a planet can be scarce, so scientists attempt to wring ambitious details out of a few data points. “We have a few hard-won numbers and not the hundreds of numbers that we need,” Burrows said. “We have in our minds that exoplanets are very complex because this is what we know about the planets in our solar system, but the data are not enough to constrain even a fraction of these conceptions.”

Burrows emphasizes that astronomers need to acknowledge that they will never achieve a comprehensive understanding of exoplanets through the direct-observation, stationary methods inherited from the exploration of Earth’s neighbors. He suggests that exoplanet researchers should acknowledge photometric interpretations as inherently flawed and ambiguous. Instead, the future of exoplanet study should focus on the more difficult but comprehensive method of spectrometry, wherein the physical properties of objects are gauged by the interaction of its surface and elemental features with light wavelengths, or spectra. Spectrometry has been used to determine the age and expansion of the universe.

Existing telescopes and satellites are likewise vestiges of pre-exoplanet observation. Burrows calls for a mix of small, medium and large initiatives that will allow the time and flexibility scientists need to develop tools to detect and analyze exoplanet spectra. He sees this as a challenge in a research environment that often puts quick-payback results over deliberate research and observation. Once scientists obtain high-quality spectral data, however, Burrows predicted, “Many conclusions reached recently about exoplanet atmospheres will be overturned.”

“The way we study planets out of the solar system has to be radically different because we can’t ‘go’ to those planets with satellites or probes,” Burrows said. “It’s much more an observational science. We have to be detectives. We’re trying to find clues and the best clues since the mid-19th century have been in spectra. It’s the only means of understanding the atmosphere of these planets.”

A longtime exoplanet researcher, Burrows predicted the existence of “hot-Jupiter” planets — gas planets similar to Jupiter but orbiting very close to the parent star — in a paper in the journal Nature months before the first such planet, 51 Pegasi b, was discovered in 1995.

Citation: Burrows, Adam S. 2014. Spectra as windows into exoplanet atmospheres. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Article first published online: Jan. 13, 2014. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1304208111

Morgan Kelly | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.princeton.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Streamlining accelerated computing for industry
24.08.2016 | DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

nachricht Lehigh engineer discovers a high-speed nano-avalanche
24.08.2016 | Lehigh University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Streamlining accelerated computing for industry

PyFR code combines high accuracy with flexibility to resolve unsteady turbulence problems

Scientists and engineers striving to create the next machine-age marvel--whether it be a more aerodynamic rocket, a faster race car, or a higher-efficiency jet...

Im Focus: X-ray optics on a chip

Waveguides are widely used for filtering, confining, guiding, coupling or splitting beams of visible light. However, creating waveguides that could do the same for X-rays has posed tremendous challenges in fabrication, so they are still only in an early stage of development.

In the latest issue of Acta Crystallographica Section A: Foundations and Advances , Sarah Hoffmann-Urlaub and Tim Salditt report the fabrication and testing of...

Im Focus: Piggyback battery for microchips: TU Graz researchers develop new battery concept

Electrochemists at TU Graz have managed to use monocrystalline semiconductor silicon as an active storage electrode in lithium batteries. This enables an integrated power supply to be made for microchips with a rechargeable battery.

Small electrical gadgets, such as mobile phones, tablets or notebooks, are indispensable accompaniments of everyday life. Integrated circuits in the interiors...

Im Focus: UCI physicists confirm possible discovery of fifth force of nature

Light particle could be key to understanding dark matter in universe

Recent findings indicating the possible discovery of a previously unknown subatomic particle may be evidence of a fifth fundamental force of nature, according...

Im Focus: Wi-fi from lasers

White light from lasers demonstrates data speeds of up to 2 GB/s

A nanocrystalline material that rapidly makes white light out of blue light has been developed by KAUST researchers.

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

The energy transition is not possible without Geotechnics

25.08.2016 | Event News

New Ideas for the Shipping Industry

24.08.2016 | Event News

A week of excellence: 22 of the world’s best computer scientists and mathematicians in Heidelberg

12.08.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Symmetry crucial for building key biomaterial collagen in the lab

26.08.2016 | Health and Medicine

Volcanic eruption masked acceleration in sea level rise

26.08.2016 | Earth Sciences

Moth takes advantage of defensive compounds in Physalis fruits

26.08.2016 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>