Along came Jacob Bean, now an assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics at the University of Chicago, who used a new method called multi-object spectroscopy to analyze the planet’s atmosphere from large, ground-based telescopes. Aided by technology, Bean and his colleagues are surmounting the challenge of inferring the atmospheric composition of planets that were invisible to humans just a few years ago.
“We’re trying to distinguish whether it’s like the gas giants we know about, or something fundamentally different from what we’ve seen in our solar system — an atmosphere predominantly composed of water,” Bean said.
The search for exoplanets - planets beyond our own solar system - has taken off over the last decade, and is now a growing component of UChicago’s research agenda in astronomy. One estimate published in January calculated that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains at least 17 billion Earth-sized planets, with a vast potential for life-sustaining worlds. Pursuing the exoplanet search via complementary methods are Bean and Daniel Fabrycky, another assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics.
Bean has received a 60-orbit allocation on the Hubble Space Telescope to continue his observations on GJ 1214b, a sign of the work’s importance. Previous HST studies of planetary atmospheres encompassed 10 to 20 orbits. Bean will use a technique called transmission spectroscopy to measure the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere with unprecedented precision.
A big prize
A definitive assessment of the planet’s atmosphere could lead to a larger prize: learning how to detect potential signs of alien life on a cosmically distant Earth twin. The atmospheric signature of life on an exoplanet presumably would contain some mixture of oxygen and various other gases.
Planetary scientists are conducting theoretical studies to narrow the range of possibilities.
“It’s interesting to note that all the instruments astronomers have used to study exoplanet atmospheres so far were never designed for that,” Bean said. “We’re using them in very unusual ways. We do what we can with what we have.”
But now Bean aims to build a system that is perfectly suited and well optimized to study exoplanet atmospheres, including that of GJ 1214b.
“The current data suggest an atmosphere predominately composed of water, but it’s not a definitive result yet,” Bean said. “There could be even more exotic scenarios possible that we’re not able to rule out.”
If GJ 1214b is a water world, “It would be very different than anything in our own solar system,” said Harvard University astronomy Professor David Charbonneau, whose team discovered the planet.
The search taps into some of modern science’s deepest questions: Are humans alone in the cosmos, and is our life-sustaining world unique? One of the earliest writers to speculate about exoplanets was the Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for espousing beliefs that the Catholic Church deemed heretical.
In one prescient passage, Bruno wrote, “In space there are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours.”
Discoveries of new exoplanets have flowed like oil from a gushing wellhead in recent years. The number has topped 850 and continues to climb.
Starting in the 1990s, exoplanet hunters initially were only able to find giant, Jupiter-like gas planets because they were bigger and thus easier to find. “They were closer to their stars than Jupiter is from the sun, so we nicknamed them ‘hot Jupiters,’” Charbonneau said.
But in recent years, scientists began pursuing a new, more interesting goal: find planets that are more Earthlike. One major push along that front was the $600-million Kepler mission, launched in 2009. This mission, encompassing a 100-member science team, is conducting a survey of planets orbiting other sun-like stars.
“Kepler is on the cusp of finding small planets in the habitable zone around both sun-like and small stars,” Fabrycky said. “This is the goal of the mission, and it’s almost there.”
New research frontiers at UChicago
A Kepler research veteran, Fabrycky began his UChicago faculty appointment last October. Fabrycky precisely measures the timing of transits, the mini eclipses that planets cause as they pass in front of their stars. Timing inconsistencies in the transits often result from the gravitational influence of other planets.
So far Kepler has 105 confirmed planet discoveries to its credit, and has identified 2,740 planet candidates. As a postdoctoral scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, two years ago, Fabrycky was a member of a team that discovered six planets orbiting a single star called Kepler-11. “Kepler-11 is hanging on — for the moment — as the one with the most number of planet signals” among exoplanetary systems, Fabrycky said.
Bean and his colleagues have made the best observations of planetary atmospheres so far using the Hubble Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and, in Chile, the Very Large Telescope array and the twin Magellan Telescopes. But the planned Giant Magellan Telescope, of which UChicago is a founding partner, and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope should eclipse the capabilities of today’s observatories when they go into service late this decade.
The new telescopes will be able to do the same sort of exoplanetary atmospheric studies underway now, “but actually do it for the smaller planets that might even be habitable,” Charbonneau said.
Steve Koppes | Newswise
Squeezing light at the nanoscale
17.06.2018 | Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
The Fraunhofer IAF is a »Landmark in the Land of Ideas«
15.06.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Festkörperphysik IAF
Moving into its fourth decade, AchemAsia is setting out for new horizons: The International Expo and Innovation Forum for Sustainable Chemical Production will take place from 21-23 May 2019 in Shanghai, China. With an updated event profile, the eleventh edition focusses on topics that are especially relevant for the Chinese process industry, putting a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation.
Founded in 1989 as a spin-off of ACHEMA to cater to the needs of China’s then developing industry, AchemAsia has since grown into a platform where the latest...
The BMBF-funded OWICELLS project was successfully completed with a final presentation at the BMW plant in Munich. The presentation demonstrated a Li-Fi communication with a mobile robot, while the robot carried out usual production processes (welding, moving and testing parts) in a 5x5m² production cell. The robust, optical wireless transmission is based on spatial diversity; in other words, data is sent and received simultaneously by several LEDs and several photodiodes. The system can transmit data at more than 100 Mbit/s and five milliseconds latency.
Modern production technologies in the automobile industry must become more flexible in order to fulfil individual customer requirements.
An international team of scientists has discovered a new way to transfer image information through multimodal fibers with almost no distortion - even if the fiber is bent. The results of the study, to which scientist from the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology Jena (Leibniz IPHT) contributed, were published on 6thJune in the highly-cited journal Physical Review Letters.
Endoscopes allow doctors to see into a patient’s body like through a keyhole. Typically, the images are transmitted via a bundle of several hundreds of optical...
Light detection and control lies at the heart of many modern device applications, such as smartphone cameras. Using graphene as a light-sensitive material for...
Water molecules exist in two different forms with almost identical physical properties. For the first time, researchers have succeeded in separating the two forms to show that they can exhibit different chemical reactivities. These results were reported by researchers from the University of Basel and their colleagues in Hamburg in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
From a chemical perspective, water is a molecule in which a single oxygen atom is linked to two hydrogen atoms. It is less well known that water exists in two...
13.06.2018 | Event News
08.06.2018 | Event News
05.06.2018 | Event News
15.06.2018 | Materials Sciences
15.06.2018 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
15.06.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering