Yesterday’s look at the exoplanet KOI-314c showed us a world with a mass equal to the Earth, but sixty percent larger than the Earth in diameter. This interesting planet may be an important one when it comes to studying exoplanet atmospheres, for KOI-314c is a transiting world and we can use transmission spectroscopy to analyze the light that passes through the atmosphere as the planet moves in front of and then behind its star. A space-based observatory like the James Webb Space Telescope should be able to tease useful information out of KOI-314c.

But the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC continues, and it’s clear that the technique of studying transit timing variations (TTV) is coming into its own as a tool for exoplanet investigation. David Kipping and colleagues use TTV to look for exomoons, and it was during such a search that they discovered KOI-314c. But consider the other AAS news. At Northwestern University, Yoram Lithwick has been measuring the masses of approximately sixty exoplanets larger than the Earth and smaller than Neptune.

Learn the mass and the size of a planet, and you can make a call on its density, and thus learn something about its probable composition. And guess what?

“We were surprised to learn that planets only a few times bigger than Earth are covered by a lot of gas,” said Lithwick. “This indicates these planets formed very quickly after the birth of their star, while there was still a gaseous disk around the star. By contrast, Earth is thought to have formed much later, after the gas disk disappeared.”

That resonates nicely with Kipping and company’s work on KOI-314c, and Lithwick, working with graduate student Sam Hadden, used transit timing variation to achieve his results. Among the duo’s sample, planets two to three times larger than the Earth have very low density (compare with KOI-314c, which turned out to be only thirty percent denser than water). These are worlds something like Neptune except smaller and covered in massive amounts of gas.


Image: Chart of Kepler planet candidates as of January 2014. Credit: NASA Ames.

Transit timing variations occur when two planets orbiting the same star pull on each other gravitationally, so that the exact time of transit for each planet is affected. These are complicated interactions, to be sure, but we’re beginning to see radial velocity measurements confirming trends that have been originally uncovered with TTV. I ran this by David Kipping, asking whether TTV wasn’t coming into its own, and he agreed. “My bet is that when we measure the mass of Earth 2.0,” Kipping wrote, “it will be via TTVs.”

We can also look at the work of Ji-Wei Xie (University of Toronto), who used TTV to measure the masses of fifteen pairs of Kepler planets. These ranged in size from close to Earth to a little larger than Neptune, The results appeared in The Astrophysical Journal in December and were presented at the AAS meeting. The work complements reports from the Kepler team at AAS presenting mass measurements of worlds between Earth and Neptune in size. Here the follow-up used for the Kepler findings was based on Doppler measurements. In fact, six of the planets under investigation are non-transiting and seen only in Doppler data.

So we’re seeing both radial velocity and TTV used to study this interesting category of planets. 41 planets discovered by Kepler were validated by the program of ground-based observation, and the masses of sixteen of these were determined, allowing scientists to make the call on planetary density. In the Kepler study, ‘mini-Neptune’ planets with a rocky core show up with varying proportions of hydrogen, helium and hydrogen-rich molecules surrounding the core. The variation is dramatic, and some of these worlds show no gaseous envelope at all.

Kepler mission scientist Natalie Batalha sums up the questions all this raises:

“Kepler’s primary objective is to determine the prevalence of planets of varying sizes and orbits. Of particular interest to the search for life is the prevalence of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone. But the question in the back of our minds is: are all planets the size of Earth rocky? Might some be scaled-down versions of icy Neptunes or steamy water worlds? What fraction are recognizable as kin of our rocky, terrestrial globe?”

Plenty of questions emerge from these findings, but the Kepler team’s report tells us that more than three-quarters of the planet candidates the mission has discovered have sizes between Earth and Neptune. Clearly this kind of planet, which is not found in our own Solar System, is a major player in the galactic population, and learning how such planets form and what they are made of will launch numerous further investigations. The usefulness of transit timing variations at determining mass will likely place the technique at the forefront of this ongoing work.

The paper by Ji-Wei Xie is “Transit Timing Variation of Near-Resonance Planetary Pairs: Confirmation of 12 Multiple-Planet Systems,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series Vol. 208, No. 2 (2013), 22 (abstract). I don’t have the citation for the Kepler report, about to be published in The Astrophysical Journal, but will run it as soon as I can. Yoram Lithwick’s presentation at AAS was based on Hadden & Lithwick, “Densities and Eccentricities of 163 Kepler Planets from Transit Time Variations,” to be published in The Astrophysical Journal and available as a preprint.