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02 July 2012

Exoplanets: Small Rocky worlds may abound


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Great News for Exoplanet Research!

The number of found exoplanet is growing and you can see here on this photograph 60 or more Star systems with there neighboring planets casting a shadow on the surface of there respective Suns.

Not all stars are created equal. Although all of them are born mostly with hydrogen, the trace amounts of other elements present can vary by at least a factor of ten, depending on the particular conditions of the star's birth cloud. 

Since planets condense out of the material in disks around young stars, astronomers wonder whether stars with relatively large amounts of these other elements will make rocky planets more easily.

Spectral observations of the star's light can reveal its original elemental composition, while the dramatic new methods for detecting exoplanets can identify, at least approximately, which stars host rocky planets (like the Earth) and which ones host primarily gaseous planets (like Jupiter). Recent observations have concluded that heavy-element-rich stars are much more likely to harbor gas giant planets like Jupiter, but the relationship for the smaller, Earth-sized planets has been unknown.

In the latest issue of the journal, Nature, CfA astronomers Dave Latham, Guillermo Torres, Gilbert Esquerdo, John Geary, Bob Stefanik, and Samuel Quinn, and their colleagues report on their spectroscopic studies of 152 stars hosting exoplanets, a subset of the 1235 candidate stars identified by the Kepler satellite as host stars.

The scientists find that planets with radii less than four Earth radii form around host stars with a wide range of elemental abundances (but on average, they look like the Sun), whereas large planets like Jupiter preferentially form around stars that have a higher abundances of elements than does the Sun. The wide variety of conditions in stars that host Earth-like planets prompts the team to conclude that terrestrial planets may be widespread in the disk of the Galaxy, with no special requirement of enhanced element abundances needed for their formation.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Photo: This artist's illustration shows the 63 hot Jupiter systems (planetary systems with Jupiter-size planet candidates) in three-day orbits, with simulated stellar colors, and disks and transiting planet silhouettes shown at the same relative scale. Credit: Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics/J Steffen.