As I decompress from the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (and review my notes for next week’s report), I have the pleasure of bringing you Andrew LePage’s incisive essay into a key exoplanet question. Are some of the planets now considered potentially habitable actually unlikely to support life? Recent work gives us some hard numbers on just how large and massive a planet can be before it is more likely to be closer to Neptune than the Earth in composition. The transition from rocky to non-rocky planets is particularly important now, when our instruments are just becoming able to detect planets small enough to qualify as habitable. LePage, who writes the excellent Drew ex Machina, remains optimistic about habitable planets in the galaxy, but so far the case for many of those identified as such may be weaker than we had thought. A prolific writer, Drew is also a Senior Project Scientist at Visidyne, Inc., where he specializes in the processing and analysis of remote sensing data.

by Andrew LePage


For much of the modern era, astronomy has benefitted greatly from the efforts of amateur scientists. But while amateur astronomers equipped with telescopes have certainly filled many important niches left by the far less numerous professionals in the field, others interested in astronomy equipped with nothing more than a computer and an Internet connection are capable of making important contributions as well. One project taking advantage of this resource is Planet Hunters.

The Planet Hunters project was originally started four years ago by the Zooinverse citizen science program to enlist the public’s help in searching through the huge photometric database of NASA’s Kepler mission looking for transits caused by extrasolar planets. While automated systems have been able to uncover thousands of candidate planets, they are limited to finding only what their programmers designed them to find – multiple, well defined transits occurring at regular intervals. The much more adaptable human brain is able to spot patterns in the changes in the brightness of stars that a computer program might miss but could still indicate the presence of an extrasolar planet. Currently in Version 2.0, the Planet Hunters project has uncovered 60 planet candidates to date through the efforts of 300,000 volunteers worldwide.

A paper by a team of astronomers with Joseph Schmitt (Yale University) as the lead author was just published in The Astrophysical Journal which describes the latest find by Planet Hunters. The target of interest for this paper is a billion year old, Sun-like star called Kepler 289 located about 2,300 light years away. Automated searches of the Kepler data had earlier found two planets orbiting this distant star: a large super-Earth with a radius 2.2 times that of the Earth (or RE) in a 34.5-day orbit originally designated Kepler 289b (called PH3 b in the new paper) and a gas giant with a radius of 11.6 RE in 125.8-day orbit, Kepler 289c (now also known as PH3 d). The new planet, PH3 c, has a radius of 2.7 RE and a mean orbital period of 66.1 days. With a mean stellar flux about 11 times that of Earth, this planet is highly unlikely to be habitable but its properties have profound implications for assessing the potential habitability of other extrasolar planets.

The planet had been missed by earlier automated searches because its orbital period varies regularly by 10.5 hours over the course of ten orbits due to its strong interactions with the other two planets, especially PH3 d. Because of this strong dynamical interaction, it was possible for Schmitt et al. to use the Transit Timing Variations or TTVs observed in the Kepler data to compute the masses of these three planets much more precisely than could be done using precision radial velocity measurements. The mass of the outer planet, PH3 d, was found to be 132±17 times that of Earth (or ME) or approximately equivalent to that of Saturn. The mass of the inner planet, PH3 b, was poorly constrained with a value of 7.3±6.8 ME. The newest discovery, PH3 c, was found to have a mass of 4.0±0.9 ME which, when combined with the radius determined using Kepler data, yields a mean density of 1.2±0.3 g/cm3 or only about one-fifth that of the Earth. Models indicate that this density is consistent with PH3 c possessing a deep, hot atmosphere of hydrogen and helium making up about half of its radius or around 2% of its total mass.

PH3 c is yet another example of a growing list of known low-density planets with masses just a few times that of the Earth that are obviously not terrestrial or rocky in composition. Before the Kepler mission, such planets were thought to exist but their exact properties were unknown because none are present in our solar system. As a result, the position in parameter space of the transition from rocky to non-rocky planets and the characteristics of this transition were unknown. So when astronomers were developing size-related nomenclature to categorize the planets they expected to find using Kepler, they somewhat arbitrarily defined “super-Earth” to be any planet with a radius in the 1.25 to 2.0 RE range regardless of its actual composition. Planets in the 2.0 to 4.0 RE range were dubbed “Neptune-size”. This has generated some confusion over the term “super-Earth” and has led to claims about the potential habitability of these planets being made in the total absence of an understanding of the true nature of these planets. Now that Kepler has found planets in this size range, astronomers have started to examine the mass-radius relationship of super-Earths.

The first hints about the characteristics of this transition from rocky to non-rocky planets were discussed in a series of papers published earlier this year. Using planetary radii determined from Kepler data and masses found by precision radial velocity measurements and analysis of TTVs, it was found that the density of super-Earths tended to rise with increasing radius as would be expected of rocky planets. But somewhere around the 1.5 to 2.0 RE range, a transition is passed where larger planets tended to become less dense instead. The interpretation of this result is that planets with radii greater than about 1.5 RE are increasingly likely to have substantial envelopes of various volatiles such as water (including high pressure forms of ice at high temperatures) and thick atmospheres rich in hydrogen and helium that decrease a planet’s bulk density. As a result, these planets can no longer be considered terrestrial or rocky planets like the Earth but would be classified as mini-Neptunes or gas dwarfs depending on the exact ratios of rock, water and gas.


Image: It now appears that many of the fanciful artist depictions of super-Earths are wrong and that most of these planets are more like Neptune than the Earth (NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech).

A detailed statistical study of this transition was submitted for publication this past July by Leslie Rogers (a Hubble Fellow at the California Institute of Technology) who is also one of the coauthors of the PH3 c discovery paper. In her study, Rogers confined her analysis to transiting planets with radii less than 4 RE whose masses had been constrained by precision radial velocity measurements. She excluded planets with masses determined by TTV analysis since this sample may be affected by selection biases that favor low-density planets (for a planet of a given mass, a large low-density planet is more likely to produce a detectable transit event than a smaller high-density planet). Rogers then determined the probability that each of the 47 planets in her Kepler-derived sample were rocky planets by comparing the properties of those planets and the associated measurement uncertainties to models of planets with various compositions. Next, she performed a statistical analysis to assess three different models for the mass-radius distribution for the sample of planets. One model assumed an abrupt, step-wise transition from rocky to non-rocky planets while the other two models assumed different types of gradual transitions where some fraction of the population of planets of a given radius were rocky while the balance were non-rocky.

Rogers’ analysis clearly showed that a transition took place between rocky and non-rocky planets at 1.5 RE with a sudden step-wise transition being mildly favored over more gradual ones. Taking into account the uncertainties in her analysis, Rogers found that the transition from rocky to non-rocky planets takes place at no greater than about 1.6 RE at a 95% confidence level. Assuming a simple linear transition in the proportions of rocky and non-rocky planets, no more than 5% of planets with radii of about 2.6 RE will have densities compatible with a rocky composition to a 95% confidence level. PH3 c, with a radius of 2.7 RE, exceeds the threshold found by Rogers and, based on its density, is clearly not a terrestrial planet.

An obvious potential counterexample to Rogers’ maximum rocky planet size threshold is the case of Kepler 10c, which made the news early this year. Kepler 10c, with a radius of 2.35 RE determined by Kepler measurements and a Neptune-like mass of 17 ME determined by radial velocity measurements, was found to have a density of 7.1±1.0 g/cm3. While this density, which is greater than Earth’s, might lead some to conclude that Kepler 10c is a solid, predominantly rocky planet, Rogers counters that its density is in fact inconsistent with a rocky composition by more than one-sigma. Comparing the measured properties of this planet with various models, she finds that there is only about a 10% probability that Kepler 10c is in fact predominantly rocky in composition. It is much more likely that it possesses a substantial volatile envelope albeit smaller than Neptune’s given its higher density.

While much more work remains to be done to better characterize the planetary mass-radius function and the transition from rocky to non-rocky planets, one of the immediate impacts of this work is on the assessment of the potential habitability of extrasolar planets. About nine planets found to date in the Kepler data have been claimed by some to be potentially habitable. Unfortunately, all but two of these planets, Kepler 62f and 186f, have radii greater than 1.6 RE and it is therefore improbable that they are terrestrial planets, never mind potentially habitable planets.

This still leaves about a dozen planets that have been frequently cited as being potentially habitable that were discovered by precision radial velocity surveys whose radii are not known. However, we do know their MPsini values where MP is the planet’s actual mass and i is the inclination of the orbit to our line of sight. Since this angle cannot be derived from radial velocity measurements alone, only the minimum mass of the planet can be determined or the probability that the actual mass is in some range. Despite this limitation, the MPsini values can serve as a useful proxy for radius.

Rogers optimistically estimates that her 1.6 RE threshold corresponds to a planet with a mass of about 6 ME assuming an Earth-like composition (which is still ~50% larger than the measured mass of PH3 c, which is now known to be a non-rocky planet). About half of the planets that some have claimed to be potentially habitable have minimum masses that exceed this optimistic 6 ME threshold while the rest have better than even odds of their actual masses exceeding this threshold. If the threshold for the transition from rocky to non-rocky planets is closer to the 4 ME mass of PH3 c, the odds of any of these planets being terrestrial planets are worse still. The unfortunate conclusion is that none of the planets discovered so far by precision radial velocity surveys are likely to be terrestrial planets and are therefore poor candidates for being potentially habitable.

Please do not get me wrong: I have always been a firm believer that the galaxy is filled with habitable terrestrial planets (and moons, too!). But in the rush to find such planets, it now seems that too many overly optimistic claims have been made about too many planets before enough information was available to properly gauge their bulk properties. Preliminary results of the planetary mass-radius relationship now hints that the maximum size of a terrestrial planet is probably about 1½ times the radius of the Earth or around 4 to 6 times Earth’s mass. Any potentially habitable planet, in addition to having to be inside the habitable zone of the star it orbits, must also be smaller than this. Unfortunately, while recent work suggests that planets of this size might be common, our technology is only just able to detect them at this time. With luck, over the coming years as more data come in, we will finally have a more realistic list of potentially habitable planet candidates that will bear up better under close scrutiny.

The discovery paper for PH3 c by Schmitt et al., “Planet Hunters VII: Discovery of a New Low-Mass, Low Density Planet (PH3 c) Orbiting Kepler-289 with Mass Measurements of Two Additional Planets (PH3 b and d)”, The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 795, No. 2, ID 167 (November 10, 2014) can be found here. The paper by Leslie Rogers submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, “Most 1.6 Earth-Radius Planets are not Rocky”, can be found here.

For a fuller discussion of how Rogers’ work impacts the most promising planets thought by many to be potentially habitable, please refer to Habitable Planet Reality Check: Terrestrial Planet Size Limit on my website Drew Ex Machina.