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Planetary Discovery around Ultracool Star

I have a special enthusiasm for microlensing as a means of exoplanet discovery. With microlensing, you never know what you’re going to come up with. Transits are easier to detect when the planet is close to its star, and hence transits more frequently. Radial velocity likewise sends its loudest signal when a planet is large and close. Microlensing, detecting the ‘bending’ of light from a background object as it is affected by a nearer star’s gravitational field, can turn up a planet whether near to its star or far, and in a wide range of masses. It can also be used to study planetary populations as distant as the galactic bulge and beyond.

Now we have news of a cold planet about the size of the Earth orbiting what may turn out to be a brown dwarf, and is in any case no more than 7.8 percent the mass of our Sun. Is this an object like TRAPPIST-1, the ultra-cool dwarf star we’ve had so much to say about in recent days as investigations of its 7 planets continue? If so, the planet OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb is in no way as interesting from an astrobiological point of view. It’s probably colder than Pluto. It is also the lowest-mass planet ever found using the microlensing technique.


Image: This artist’s concept shows OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb, reported in a 2017 study in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Study authors used the Korea Microlensing Telescope Network (KMTNet), operated by the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, to track the microlensing event and find the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

But don’t think this frigid world, about 13000 light years away, doesn’t have its uses. It is part of an ongoing investigation into the distribution of planets in the galaxy. The OGLE designation signifies the ground-based Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment survey, run by the University of Warsaw, which alerted astronomers to the initial microlensing event. The authors of the study on OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb then used the Korea Microlensing Telescope Network (KMTNet) as well as the Spitzer space telescope to study the outcome.

With this planet, we are at the lowest end of what microlensing can detect with current methods. We’ll need to get to NASA’s upcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to begin finding smaller bodies than this. Tuning up the method will be useful as we work on understanding how planets are distributed in the Milky Way, since microlensing can find planets at distances far beyond the capabilities of other detection methods. Specifically, will we find a difference in the planet populations of the Milky Way’s central bulge as compared to its disk? OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb is a member of the disk population.

“Although we only have a handful of planetary systems with well-determined distances that are this far outside our solar system, the lack of Spitzer detections in the bulge suggests that planets may be less common toward the center of our galaxy than in the disk,” says Geoff Bryden, astronomer at JPL and co-author of the study.

Let’s dig a little deeper, though, into planet formation around ultracool stars. A 2007 paper by Matthew Payne and Giuseppe Lodato looked at the core accretion method of planet formation in the context of very low mass stars and brown dwarfs, arguing that if such objects have protoplanetary disks in the range of several Jupiter masses, then Earth-mass planets should be frequent around them, typically at about 1 AU from the star. But if brown dwarf disks contain less than a Jupiter mass of material, then they probably cannot form a planet.

The OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb paper runs through the scholarship, including a 2013 study from Daniel Apai showing that disks occur as frequently around ultracool dwarfs as around Sun-like stars. And a 2016 paper from Leonardo Testi and colleagues found evidence for dusty disks around 11 of 17 young brown dwarfs studied. A Herschel study from Sebastian Daemgen and team, likewise in 2016, found that half of the ultracool dwarf disks it examined were of at least one Jupiter mass.

So we’re making progress at learning about planet formation in ultracool environments, and here again microlensing comes to the fore. Stars this faint, and their even fainter planets, are a tough challenge for most planetary detection methods, though four have been found with direct imaging. Microlensing does not rely on light from the system being studied, but it can give us information about the planetary and stellar masses involved. And indeed, we have four previous microlensing events that have found planets around ultracool dwarfs.

Two of these previous microlensing detections show planets as small as a few Earth masses, and OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb lowers the detected mass still further. From the paper:

These [previous discoveries] suggest that the protoplanetary disks of ultracool dwarfs have sufficient mass to form terrestrial planets, as also hinted at by direct imaging of such disks. The location of these planets, at about 1 AU, support planet formation predictions. However, since the sensitivity of current microlensing surveys for systems with such small mass ratios is very narrow, around projected separations of ∼1AU, they cannot set strong constraints on the presence of planets elsewhere around ultracool dwarfs, such as the much closer separations seen in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Small planets may be common around ultracool dwarfs, an idea that previous microlensing discoveries reinforce, along with the work on protoplanetary disks and the seven planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1. As to our expectations regarding planets in the galactic bulge as opposed to the disk, the jury is still out. The planets Spitzer has thus far found in its microlensing campaign for the galactic distribution of planets are all located in the disk. We have two upcoming Spitzer microlensing campaigns, one this year and one next, which should offer additional insights. The key question: Is the galactic bulge deficient in planets?

The paper is Shvartzvald et al., “An Earth-mass Planet in a 1-AU Orbit around an Ultracool Dwarf,” accepted at Astrophysical Journal Letters (preprint).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Harry R Ray April 28, 2017, 9:56

    I do not necessarily buy the “frozen iceball” characterization for OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb. It could very well be a slightly more massive version of my characterization of TRAPPIST-1g(for details, see my comment on the “More work on TRAPPIST-1” post on this website).

  • Alexander Tolley April 28, 2017, 11:40

    SciFi has usually depicted the center of the galaxy as a place rich in civs, with the density of stars allowing faster contact. Then astronomers suggested that this region was unsuitable for life due to stellar radiation. Now it appears that there may even be a shortage of planets.

    If nothing else, that must impact the Drake equation by reducing the global number of stars with habitable planets, although like the environmental conditions, it should mean that the equation’s variable values differ depending on location.

    • Robert G April 28, 2017, 16:54

      So I guess the galaxy itself has a ‘habitable zone’. I haven’t seen it talked about anywhere. Since we are obviously in it, I suppose you could define it as a first pass as extending from the radius we are at to the edge.

    • ljk April 28, 2017, 16:58

      We should be searching the colder outer regions of the galaxy where infrared signatures appear where no star seems to be.

      The Matrioshka Brains work better in cooler environments…


  • andy April 28, 2017, 12:41

    This microlensing event was also analysed in Bond et al., “The Lowest Mass Ratio Planetary Microlens: OGLE 2016-BLG-1195Lb” – they estimate a somewhat higher stellar mass than the Shvartzvald paper and a higher mass and wider separation for the planet. Either way, I guess its astrobiological potential would lie in any subsurface oceans it may have.

    On the subject of planets around cool stars, there’s a recent arXiv paper about the spectrum of Proxima Centauri: there appears to be an infrared excess which may be evidence for warm dust in the system.

  • jonW April 28, 2017, 17:06

    But that’s funny, I was just reading about Baade’s Window the other day (a dust-free gap about one degree in diameter through which we get an otherwise unobtainable unobstructed view of the galactic bulge), and Wikipedia says this: “OGLE and other observation programs have successfully detected extrasolar planets orbiting around central bulge stars in this area by the gravitational microlensing method.” So where does the pessimism about the central bulge come from?

    • J. Jason Wentworth May 2, 2017, 15:33

      That–“central bulge”–could become a double entendre for astronomically-minded folks… :-) More seriously, though:

      Exoplanetary systems in the Shapley Center–another term for the galactic hub–should, it would seem, be detectable by infrared means even if dust blocks them from view in visible light. While infrared telescopes have lower resolution capability than visible light telescopes of the same size (in terms of the human eye, I once read that an eye 8 feet wide would be necessary to see in infrared with the same resolution that we do with our visible light eyes), that problem could be remedied for IR imaging telescopes by using two or more identical ‘scopes spaced an appropriate distance apart.

  • J. Jason Wentworth April 30, 2017, 21:57

    While brown dwarfs’ planets are probably less likely to be the abodes of (indigenous) *intelligent* life, some of them could be warm enough to be inhabited, despite the feeble radiation from the sub-stars (an older name for brown dwarfs) that they orbit. Such planets, if heated by tidal interactions between their primaries (the brown dwarfs) and other planets orbiting farther out, could have active volcanism like Io, and even tectonic activity. Such worlds that are more like Europa could have tidally-heated, sub-ice oceans with hydrothermal vents, which would provide local “heat oases” as well as minerals that could facilitate biological activity. Also:

    Such brown dwarf exoplanetary systems–especially any that we might find that are closer than the Alpha Centauri system–would be well worth sending fast solar sail or laser-pushed lightsail interstellar micro-probes of ^these^ types (flyby-type [ https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=37527 ] or stellar and planetary orbiter-type [ https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=37514 ]) to. As well as conducting exoplanet investigations, such missions would also be of the “Exotic Astrophysics” variety (using Eugene F. Mallove’s and Gregory L. Matloff’s interstellar probe mission categorization scheme in “The Starflight Handbook: A Pioneer’s Guide to Interstellar Travel”), because brown dwarfs–because of their relatively weak gravity–don’t fuse ordinary hydrogen to produce their energy, but fuse heavy hydrogen (deuterium) instead.

  • Adam May 1, 2017, 2:22

    Hi Paul
    A new preprint of relevance today:
    The Demographics of Rocky Free-Floating Planets and Their Detectability by WFIRST
    …punchline is that there should be at least 2.5 free-floating Mercury-to-Mars size planets for every star.

    • Paul Gilster May 1, 2017, 8:41

      Fascinating topic in its own right. Let’s hope WFIRST can help us build up the free-floating planet statistics, as it apparently can.

  • Sean Robert Meaney May 2, 2017, 9:09

    While discovery of planets around a ‘cold’ star is interesting it amounts to a no go zone for anything but unmanned probes. Any priority for the discovery of life will be a yellow star.

  • ljk May 9, 2017, 10:39

    Another brown dwarf/exoplanet that refuses to constrain itself to the boundaries and labeled imposed by human astronomers: