Exoplanet science can look forward to a rash of discoveries involving gravitational microlensing. Consider: In 2023, the European Space Agency will launch Euclid, which although not designed as an exoplanet mission per se, will carry a wide-field infrared array capable of high resolution. ESA is considering an exoplanet microlensing survey for Euclid, which will be able to study the galactic bulge for up to 30 days twice per year, perhaps timed for the end of the craft’s cosmology program.

Look toward crowded galactic center long enough and you just may see a star in the galaxy’s disk move in front of a background star located much further away in that dense bulge. The result: The lensing phenomenon predicted by Einstein, with the light of the background star magnified by the intervening star. If that star has a planet, it’s one we can detect even if it’s relatively small, and even if it’s widely spaced from its star.

For its part, NASA plans to launch the Roman space telescope by 2027, with its own exoplanet microlensing survey slotted in as a core science activity. The space telescope will be able to conduct uninterrupted microlensing operations for two 72-day periods per year, and may coordinate these activities with the Euclid team. In both cases, we have space instruments that can detect cool, low-mass exoplanets for which, in many cases, we’ll be able to combine data from the spacecraft and ground observatories, helping to nail down orbit and distance measurements.

While we await these new additions to the microlensing family, we can also take surprised pleasure in the announcement of a microlensing discovery, the world known as K2-2016-BLG-0005Lb. Yes, this is a Kepler find, or more precisely, a planet uncovered through exhaustive analysis of K2 data, with the help of ground-based data from the OGLE microlensing survey, the Korean Microlensing Telescope Network (KMTNet), Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA), the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope. I list all these projects and instruments by way of illustrating how what we learn from microlensing grows with wide collaboration, allowing us to combine datasets.

Kepler and microlensing? Surprise is understandable, and the new world, similar to Jupiter in its mass and distance from its host star, is about twice as distant as any exoplanets confirmed by Kepler, which used the transit method to make its discoveries. David Specht (University of Manchester) is lead author of the paper, which will appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The effort involved sifting K2 data for signs of an exoplanet and its parent star occulting a background star, with accompanying gravitational lensing caused by both foreground objects.

Eamonn Kerins is principal investigator for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) grant that funded the work. Dr Kerins adds:

“To see the effect at all requires almost perfect alignment between the foreground planetary system and a background star. The chance that a background star is affected this way by a planet is tens to hundreds of millions to one against. But there are hundreds of millions of stars towards the center of our galaxy. So Kepler just sat and watched them for three months.”

Image: The view of the region close to the Galactic Center centered where the planet was found. The two images show the region as seen by Kepler (left) and by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) from the ground. The planet is not visible but its gravity affected the light observed from a faint star at the center of the image (circled). Kepler’s very pixelated view of the sky required specialized techniques to recover the planet signal. Credit: Specht et al.

This is a classic case of pushing into a dataset with specialized analytical methods to uncover something the original mission designers never planned to see. The ground-based surveys that examined the same area of sky offered a combined dataset to go along with what Kepler saw slightly earlier, given its position 135 million kilometers from Earth, allowing scientists to triangulate the system’s position along the line of sight, and to determine the mass of the exoplanet and its orbital distance.

What an intriguing, and decidedly unexpected, result from Kepler! K2-2016-BLG-0005Lb is also a reminder of the kind of discovery we’re going to be making with Euclid and the Roman instrument. Because it is capable of finding lower-mass worlds at a wide range of orbital distances, microlensing should help us understand how common it is to have a Jupiter-class planet in an orbit similar to Jupiter’s around other stars. Is the architecture of our Solar System, in other words, unique or fairly representative of what we will now begin to find?

Animation: The gravitational lensing signal from Jupiter twin K2-2016-BLG-0005Lb. The local star field around the system is shown using real color imaging obtained with the ground-based Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope by the K2C9-CFHT Multi-Color Microlensing Survey team. The star indicated by the pink lines is animated to show the magnification signal observed by Kepler from space. The trace of this signal with time is shown in the lower right panel. On the left is the derived model for the lensing signal, involving multiple images of the star cause by the gravitational field of the planetary system. The system itself is not directly visible. Credit: CFHT.

From the paper:

The combination of spatially well separated simultaneous photometry from the ground and space also enables a precise measurement of the lens–source relative parallax. These measurements allow us to determine a precise planet mass (1.1 ± 0.1 ?? ), host mass (0.58 ± 0.03 ??) and distance (5.2 ± 0.2 kpc).

The authors describe the world as “a close analogue of Jupiter orbiting a K-dwarf star,” noting:

The location of the lens system and its transverse proper motion relative to the background source star (2.7 ± 0.1 mas/yr) are consistent with a distant Galactic-disk planetary system microlensing a star in the Galactic bulge.

Given that Kepler was not designed for microlensing operations, it’s not surprising to see the authors refer to it as “highly sub-optimal for such science.” But here we have a direct planet measurement including mass with high precision made possible by the craft’s uninterrupted view of its particular patch of sky. Euclid and the Roman telescope should have much to contribute given that they are optimized for microlensing work. We can look for a fascinating expansion of the planetary census.

The paper is Specht et al., “Kepler K2 Campaign 9: II. First space-based discovery of an exoplanet using microlensing,” in process at Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society” (preprint).