It’s 9000 times easier to find a ‘hot Neptune’ than a Neptune out around the ‘snow line,’ that region marking the distance at which conditions are cold enough for ice grains to form in a solar system. Thus says David Kipping (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), who is lead author on the paper announcing the discovery of Kepler-421b, an interesting world about which Kipping has been sending out provocative tweets this past week. Kepler-421b draws the eye because its year is 704 days, making it the longest orbital period transiting planet yet found. The intriguing new world is located about 1000 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lyra.

The transit method works by detecting the characteristic drop in brightness as a planet moves across the face of the star as seen from Earth. What’s unusual here is that Kepler-421b moved across its star only twice in the four years that the Kepler space telescope monitored it. As Kipping explains on this CfA web page, the further a planet is from its host star, the lower the probability that it will pass in front of the star as seen from Earth. Kepler-421b should have had, by Kipping’s calculations, a tiny 0.3% chance of being observed in a transit. We can be happy for the discovery while also considering how tricky it will be to find worlds like it by transit methods.


Image: Transit light curve of Kepler-421b. Blue and red points denote the two different transit epochs observed, offset in time by 704 days. Credit: David Kipping et al.

Also known as the ‘frost line,’ the snow line in our own Solar System is the divider between the rocky inner planets all the way out to Mars, and the outer gas giants. The kind of planet you get depends in part on whether, during the early period of planet formation, the emerging planet is inside or outside the snow line. According to our current formation models, gas giants form beyond the snow line, where the temperatures are low enough that water condenses into ice grains. The planetary embryos that become the gas giants should have abundant ice grains sticking together to create worlds rich in ice and water compared to the inner system.

That has major implications, of course, because we have discovered a large number of ‘hot Jupiters’ and Neptune analogues that orbit far inside the snow line in their respective systems. That makes for migration scenarios where gas giants forming in the outer system move inward as the result of likely gravitational encounters with other worlds. Kepler-421b, however, orbits its K-class primary at a distance of about 177 million kilometers, a gas giant that may never have migrated, and the first example of such ever found using the transit method.

The snow line moves inward over time as the young planetary system evolves, and Kipping and team’s calculations show that when this system was about three million years old, early in the era of planet formation, its snow line should have been at about the same distance as Kepler-421b’s present location. The planet is roughly the size of Uranus, about four times the size of Earth, which may be an indication that it formed late in the planet formation era, at a time when not enough material was left in the system to allow it to become as large as Jupiter.

But is Kepler-421b truly an ice giant or could it actually be a large, rocky world? The evidence strongly favors the former. From the paper (internal citations deleted for brevity):

Although calculating detailed formation scenarios for Kepler-421b is outside the scope of this work, simple arguments suggest Kepler-421b is an icy planet which formed at or beyond the snow line. With a radius of roughly 4 R? and a mass density of at least 5 g cm-3, a rocky Kepler-421b has a mass of at least 60 M?. Growing such a massive planet requires a massive protostellar disk with most of the solid material at 1-2 AU. Among protoplanetary disks in nearby star-forming regions, such massive disks are rare. Thus, a rocky Kepler-421b seems unlikely.

And as to the place of formation:

For Kepler-421b, in situ formation is a reasonable alternative to formation and migration from larger semi-major axes. Scaling results from published calculations, the time scale to produce a 10-20 M? planet is comparable to or larger than the median lifetime of the protoplanetary disk. Thus formation from icy planetesimals is very likely. If significant migration through the gas and leftover planetesimals can be avoided, Kepler-421b remains close to the ‘feeding zone’ in which it formed.

To place the planet in context, consider that Mars orbits the Sun every 780 days, as compared to Kepler-421b’s 704 day orbit (around, as mentioned above, a K-class star that would be cooler and dimmer than the Sun). The researchers’ calculations indicate a temperature of about -135 Fahrenheit (180 K). At least one recent paper, cited by Kipping and colleagues, suggests that planets near the threshold of the snow line may be common, but finding them by transit methods will be difficult because of the low transit probability. As for radial velocity detection, the planet poses what the paper calls “a significant challenge to current observational facilities,” but determining the mass of worlds like this could help us understand the relationship between mass and radius as we move further from the parent star.

The paper is Kipping et al., “Discovery of a Transiting Planet Near the Snow-Line,” accepted by The Astrophysical Journal and available as a preprint online.