Often when an exoplanet is discovered the first question asked by the mainstream media is whether the new planet is “Earth-like.” In truth we know little about these far-away planets other than their mass or size, and whether they orbit within the habitable zone of their host star. Scientists are using PCA and SAMURAI to learn more about exoplanets, and LUVOIR may ultimately help us get a much better look at these distant worlds.
Lupita Tovar is a first-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington, where she works at the Virtual Planetary Laboratory. She gave a talk titled “Mapping New Worlds” at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle event at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Tovar is helping develop the parameters for LUVOIR, which stands for Large UltraViolet/Optical/InfraRed Surveyor. It is one of four projects being considered by NASA as part of the 2020 decadal survey, which will help pick the agency’s next big project.
Big is the operative word for LUVOIR. Astronomers love aperture for their telescopes, and LUVOIR would dwarf any space telescope to date. The Hubble Space Telescope has a 2.4-meter mirror, and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch next year, will be 6.5 meters. LUVOIR would nearly double that; Tovar said it is proposed right now to have a 12-meter mirror. It would also be equipped with a coronagraph which would block the light of a host star. Much as Venus and Mars were visible in the daytime during last month’s total solar eclipse, blocking starlight would allow us to see much dimmer objects nearby.
“The coronagraph will allow us to see those close-in planets, like Venus, and allow us to study those planets,” Tovar said. LUVOIR would be a powerful instrument. It could see Venus, Earth, and Jupiter from a distance of ten parsecs, or about 33 light years.
Fortunately, astronomers don’t have to wait for LUVOIR to make progress on mapping exoplanets. Tovar said that today they’re using PCA—Principal Component Analysis—to get a better idea about an exoplanet’s surface.
“We use PCA to extract how many components are there,” Tovar explained. “Is it just one, solid icy body? Are there two different types of surfaces sitting on that planet? Are there three? Are there more? PCA allows us to extract that information.”
Call in the SAMURAI
Once they know how many surface types there are, astronomers can then use SAMURAI—Surface Albedo Mapping Using RotAtional Inversion—to figure out just what those surfaces are. Tovar said it’s like looking at a beach ball as it is batted around. As the ball spins, different colors face the observer. SAMURAI uses algorithms to determine the composition of each surface type. For example, land reflects more light than ocean does, but an ocean’s reflection will spike when it’s near the edge of the exoplanet, from our view, because of the glint of light from the host star.
LUVOIR is just a glint in the eyes of astronomers now, but it along with PCA and SAMURAI could give us a much better idea about the makeup of exoplanets.
“Combined together, all of these three components will help you create a map,” Tovar said.
Is Tatooine out there?
Star Wars fans often speculate about the existence of planets like Luke Skywalker’s home world Tatooine, which has two suns. So far we know of a dozen exoplanets in orbit around binary star systems. Diana Windemuth, also a Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at UW, studies these sorts of systems and gave a talk titled, “By the Light of Two Suns” at Astronomy on Tap Seattle.
“Our Sun is a bit of a weirdo in that it does not have a companion,” Windemuth said, explaining that about half of stars like the Sun have one. The more massive a primary star is, the more likely it is to have a companion, she said. Further, there are two types of stable orbits a planet in a binary star system can have. In an S-type orbit the planet will go around just one of the stars; it will be either a circumprimary or circumsecondary orbit. In the P-type, the exoplanet orbits both stars.
“A circumbinary planet goes around in a wider orbit around an inner, closer-in binary,” Windemuth explained. She said it is harder to find these sorts of systems using Kepler’s transit method because throwing in a third body complicates things. Kepler measures the overall light from a system, and the amount of light we see changes not only when the planet transits, but when the stars eclipse each other.
“These are called eclipsing binaries because they go around one another,” Windemuth said. Exoplanets are confirmed when dips in the light during transits happen at regular intervals. Usually a computer picks that out of the data, but it doesn’t work so well on binary systems.
It’s a trick!
“It turns out its difficult to train a computer to do that because of what we call the geometric effect,” Windemuth said. Because the stars move with respect to each other in binary systems, the period of transits can appear to vary because of differing distances the light travels to reach us. Gravitational interactions in the system can also create wobble and change the perceived period of transits.
“Even though the period of your planet might be the same, the transits will occur at different times,” Windemuth noted.
It’s probably because of these challenges that we’ve only discovered a handful of circumbinary planets so far, Windemuth said, and none of them are candidates to be the real-life Tatooine.
“No terrestrial circumbinary planets have been found yet,” she said. That could be because they’re too hard to find, or maybe planets with short periods are destroyed when they orbit too close to the binary stars.
“It’s probably because our detection algorithms are not good enough yet,” Windemuth concluded.
Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. The next gathering is scheduled for September 27 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard, and the topic will be polarimetry. We don’t know what that is, either, but are looking forward to finding out!