Exploring the universe

Direct imaging of Exoplanets

It is extremely hard to get a direct image of an exoplanet because our instruments are completely blinded by the bright light from the star. For that reason exoplanets are mostly measured by indirect methods like the transit method or radial velocity or gravitational lensing. Direct imaging is the holy grail of exoplanet studies. When astronomers can study exoplanets in detail we can find out information about the planet's atmosphere and composition and even search for biosignature.

One way to solve it is to use an old technique coronagraph invented by the French astronomer Bernard Lyot in 1930 to study the sun's atmosphere. The coronagraph is a telescopic attachment that is designed to block the light from the star.

Some exoplanets have already been directly imaged by blocking the blinding light from the star. An image was taken of the multi-exoplanet system HR 8799 in September 2008. Three planets with masses of ten to seven times Jupiter were observed. The system is young 30 million years and the planets were still glowing from the formation. A fourth planet was discovered around the same system in 2010.

The very first direct image of an exoplanet was already taken in 2004 when a group of astronomers used the VLT telescope to take a picture of a planet (also this planet was several times the size of Jupiter) orbiting a brown dwarf called 2MASS J12073346-3932539 (don't forget the name).

Direct imaging has also been used on Proxima Centauri, our nearest star at 4.25 light-years away. In 2016 an Earth-like planet was discovered in the habitable zone of the system. Measurement by radial velocity in 2019 suggested that the system also has a larger planet Proxima c outside the habitable zone. The image was taken earlier this year by Raffaele Gratton and his colleagues using a VLT telescope and an instrument called SPHERE. The image has some noise and it could be a planet, but the point is brighter than expected. As the planet would not be that large if it exists. One explanation could be that the planet is surrounded by rings like Saturn but with a smaller planet and bigger rings.


One of the most recent news (May 20 2020) is that an image of an exoplanet being born around the star AB Aurigae 520 light-years from Earth has been taken by VLT using SPHERE.

Credit: ESO/Boccaletti et al.


The planet is formatting at the same distance as Neptune from the Sun.

2MASS J12073346-3932539 b HR 8799 b HR 8799 c HR 8799 d HR 8799 e AB Aurigae Proxima Cen c Proxima Cen b

A new earth-sized exoplanet has been discovered Kepler-1649 c

A new Earth-sized exoplanet has been discovered. Kepler-1649 c has a radius of 1.06 times earth. And just like the name suggests the discovery comes from the Kepler data. The Kepler telescope was retired on October 2018 30, 2018.  The planet was originally analyzed by Kepler's Robovetter algorithm. Robovetter is open-source software that automates the process to distinguish between likely planet candidates and false positives in the Kepler dataset.

Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Robovetter labeled  Kepler-1649 c as a false positive. A computer algorithm could make mistakes when it comes to analyzing tricky signals. Therefore a group of scientists called the Kepler False Positive Working Group has the mission to manually review and confirm all those false positives. They discovered that Kepler-1649 c is not a false positive and published these findings in April 2020.

Earlier in 2017 an earth size planet Kepler-1649 b was discovered around the star the planet orbits closer to the star. The interesting thing is how these two exoplanets are interacting with each other when the first planet makes 4 revolutions around its star the second one makes 9. This makes it a very stable system. Kepler-1649 c is in the habitable zone of its star and could have the same temperature as Earth while Kepler-1649 b could be more similar to Venus. 

The star Kepler-1649 is 300 light-years away and is a red dwarf star with 0.22 times the mass of our sun. The problem with red dwarfs is that they could have a very high stellar activity that gives violent flares, no flares have been observed around Kepler-1649 so far. This is a very interesting discovery that confirms Earth-size planets in the habitable zone are very common around red dwarf stars. And it increases the possibility that one will have the same condition as Earth

Kepler-1649 c Kepler-1649 b

Saturns potentially habitable icy moon Enceladus

Enceladus is the sixth biggest moon of Saturn. The moon that was discovered by William Herschel in 1789 is named after the giant Enceladus of Greek mythology. It won't live up to its name when it comes to size. With a diameter of 500 km, the moon would fit within the north sea. But it will live up to its name when it comes to being one of the strongest candidates for finding non-terrestrial microbial life in our Solar system. Studies have shown half of Earth's biomass lives long under the surface. As microbial life is not just a surface phenomenon the chances of finding this kind of organism outside the so-called goldilocks zone of a star increases. The strongest candidates are moons around gas giants that under their thick icy surface has oceans heated with volcanic activity. One of those candidates is Jupiter's moon Europa that I wrote about in this article. And the other is Enceladus.


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On January 16th, 2005 Nasa's probe Cassini's was on a flyby pass Saturn when it captured a very unusual event on Enceladus. There was a bright light coming from the south pole of the moon shining out into space. There were enormous geysers plumbing out vapor into space, more than 8000 times larger than geyser on Earth. Nasa immediately decided that Cassini should have a new mission. To study Enceladus. The probe was reprogrammed from earth to fly into these plumbs and find out was the vapor was made of. It took three years of reprogramming until Cassini was able to do that and the result showed that the vapor was liquid water. Some of the water will fall back on Enceladus as snow but the most will make of the material in Saturn's E ring. The result also showed that the water contains salt which is a very important ingredient for life. The chemicals in the water were very similar to earth and it also showed that something inside Enceladus was heating the water. On June 27, 2018, scientists reported the detection of complex organics compounds from the Cassini data. The Cassini mission ended in September 2017 with the probe crashing into Saturn's atmosphere.

It is very hard getting a probe to investigate Enceladus within a reasonable budget. Several future missions to Enceladus that have been proposed has been canceled. Here is are a list of candidates that are under study and could be our next mission to the icy moon:

  • Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) has been twice proposed by Nasa, but it has not been selected yet. The probe would orbit Saturn and fly through the geysers several times.
  • Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) is another proposed project by Nasa. It has not been selected for launch but has received development funds to improve the instrument. Any details about the mission have not been made public yet.
  • Explorer of Enceladus and Titan (E2T) a mission that would investigate both Enceladus and Titan is proposed by ESA in collaboration with NASA. The probe will have high-resolution mass spectrometry to analyze the ice Enceladus.
  • Enceladus Explorer (EnEx) is founded by the German Aerospace Center and the research is carried out on seven German universities. EnEx is a lander mission and will be equipped with an iceMole that is a maneuverable ice-melting probe.
  • Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, the founder of Breakthrough Initiatives that I wrote about in this article. He is also planning a mission to Enceladus. The low-cost and low mass spacecraft using solar sails will fly through the geysers once and analyze its content for biosignatures. Milner will also receive scientific and technical expertise from Nasa during this project.
Saturn Enceladus

TESS has found a new Earth-like planet around TOI 700

TESS has recently found a new Earth-like planet around the star TOI 700. TOI stands for Tess Object of Interest. This is the first discovery of an Earth-like planet done by TESS. The star has three planets called TOI 700 b,TOI 700 c,TOI 700 d. The first planet is TOI 700 b that has the same size as Earth but is very hot and is more like an Earth-size Mercury. The second planet is a Super-Earth eight times the size of Earth. The planet is too hot and would be more like a Super Venus. The third planet is a little larger than Earth with 1.7 the mass of Earth and is in the inner edge of the habitable zone of the star. Technically the planet could have liquid water and support life. The planet would not be an Earth twin as it orbiting an M type star a red dwarf with 40 percent of the mass of our Sun. All the planets will probably have tidally locked orbits were one side of the planet would always face the star and be hot and the other side never gets any light from the star and is cold. Perhaps humans could survive in the area between the cold and hot part of TOI 700 d if the planet has a correct atmosphere. 

Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

A problem with red dwarf stars is that they usually have violent flares that could strip any planet of its atmosphere. The good news is that TOI 700 does not show a single flare. There are several indications that the star has low stellar activity and simulations of the planet have shown that it is a strong candidate for being a habitable world. We can not be sure if the star had higher stellar activity and flares in the past. The discovery was also confirmed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. TOI 700 is located 100 light-years from Earth in the Dorado constellation. We will not be able to visit soon, but next year when James Webb telescope is in use that has a sharper instrument we can receive more information about the composition of the planet.  

TOI 700 b TOI 700 c TOI 700 d

Will Betelgeuse go supernova

Betelgeuse is the 11 brightest object in the night sky and the second brightest object in the Orion constellation after Rigel. The star is a red giant about 11 times more massive than the sun. If Betelgeuse had been in the same location at our sun it would have been swallowed all the inner planets and reach the current orbit of Jupiter. The star is just 10 million years old but it has evolved rapidly because of its huge mass and will soon end in a supernova within 100 thousand years. Our sun will just as Betelgeuse also become a red giant in 5 to 6 billion years and will increase its radius to reach the current orbit of the earth. But our Sun is not massive enough to become a supernova instead it will form a planetary nebula and leave behind a white dwarf as massive as the sun but much denser with a radius similar to Earth. Betelgeuse, on the other hand, will explode in a massive supernova and leave behind neutron star 1.5 times more massive than our sun.

Betelgeuse Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Recently astronomers have discovered that Betelgeuse is getting fainter. By the end of December, it is the 23 brightest object in the night sky. This could mean that Betelgeuse is becoming a supernova, but there could be other explanations for the dimming Betelgeuse is a variable star that has increasing and decreasing cycles of luminosity.

Hypothetically if now Betelgeuse were to explode in a supernova, how will it look like? And will it be dangerous for us? Betelgeuse will become as bright as our moon and light up the night sky and it could even be visible during the day. It lasts for a couple of weeks or even months before it fades away. This would be an amazing astronomical event to observe it will be a priceless scientific possibility for astronomers to learn more about supernovas. Betelgeuse is 640 light-years from the sun and the radiation from the supernova will not affect us on that distance. If we will have the opportunity to see a supernova soon than Betelgeuse should have exploded during the 14th century.

The last time a supernova was visible was 1604 the Kepler's Supernova 20000 light-years from Earth. It was the brightest star in the sky. It was observed by Kepler and was published in the work De Stella nova. It was also reported by Chinese, Korean and Arabic sources.


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