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 Attosecond camera for nanostructures
31.05.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik

nachricht Rosetta’s comet contains ingredients for life
30.05.2016 | Universität Bern

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: Attosecond camera for nanostructures

Physicists of the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich in collaboration with scientists from the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg have observed a light-matter phenomenon in nano-optics, which lasts only attoseconds.

The interaction between light and matter is of key importance in nature, the most prominent example being photosynthesis. Light-matter interactions have also...

Im Focus: Worldwide Success of Tyrolean Wastewater Treatment Technology

A biological and energy-efficient process, developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck, converts nitrogen compounds in wastewater treatment facilities into harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas. This innovative technology is now being refined and marketed jointly with the United States’ DC Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water). The largest DEMON®-system in a wastewater treatment plant is currently being built in Washington, DC.

The DEMON®-system was developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck 11 years ago. Today this successful technology has been implemented in about 70...

Im Focus: Computational high-throughput screening finds hard magnets containing less rare earth elements

Permanent magnets are very important for technologies of the future like electromobility and renewable energy, and rare earth elements (REE) are necessary for their manufacture. The Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg, Germany, has now succeeded in identifying promising approaches and materials for new permanent magnets through use of an in-house simulation process based on high-throughput screening (HTS). The team was able to improve magnetic properties this way and at the same time replaced REE with elements that are less expensive and readily available. The results were published in the online technical journal “Scientific Reports”.

The starting point for IWM researchers Wolfgang Körner, Georg Krugel, and Christian Elsässer was a neodymium-iron-nitrogen compound based on a type of...

Im Focus: Atomic precision: technologies for the next-but-one generation of microchips

In the Beyond EUV project, the Fraunhofer Institutes for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen and for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena are developing key technologies for the manufacture of a new generation of microchips using EUV radiation at a wavelength of 6.7 nm. The resulting structures are barely thicker than single atoms, and they make it possible to produce extremely integrated circuits for such items as wearables or mind-controlled prosthetic limbs.

In 1965 Gordon Moore formulated the law that came to be named after him, which states that the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every one to two...

Im Focus: Researchers demonstrate size quantization of Dirac fermions in graphene

Characterization of high-quality material reveals important details relevant to next generation nanoelectronic devices

Quantum mechanics is the field of physics governing the behavior of things on atomic scales, where things work very differently from our everyday world.

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Networking 4.0: International Laser Technology Congress AKL’16 Shows New Ways of Cooperations

24.05.2016 | Event News

Challenges of rural labor markets

20.05.2016 | Event News

International expert meeting “Health Business Connect” in France

19.05.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Better combustion for power generation

31.05.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Stick insects produce bacterial enzymes themselves

31.05.2016 | Life Sciences

In a New Method for Searching Image Databases, a Hand-drawn Sketch Is all it Takes

31.05.2016 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>