What We Know Now about TRAPPIST-1 (and what we don’t)

Our recent conversations about the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe emphasize how early in the search we are. Consider recent work on TRAPPIST-1, which draws on JWST data to tell us more about the nature of the seven planets there. On the surface, this seven-planet system around a nearby M-dwarf all but shouts for attention, given that we have three planets in the habitable zone, all of them of terrestrial size, as indeed are all the planets in the system. Moreover, as an ultracool dwarf star, the primary is both tiny and bright in the infrared, just the thing for an instrument like the James Webb Space Telescope to harvest solid data on planetary atmospheres.

This is a system, in other words, ripe for atmospheric and perhaps astrobiological investigation, and Michaël Gillon (University of Liége), the key player in discovering its complexities, points in a new paper to how much we’ve already learned. If its star is ultracool, the planetary system at TRAPPIST-1 can also be considered ‘ultracompact’ in that the innermost and outermost planets orbit at 0.01 and 0.06 AU respectively. By comparison, Mercury orbits at 0.4 AU from our Sun. The stability of the system through mean motion resonances means that we’re able to deduce tight limits on mass and density, which in turn give us useful insights into their composition.

Image: Measuring the mass and diameter of a planet reveals its density, which can give scientists clues about its composition. Scientists now know the density of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets with a higher precision than any other planets in the universe, other than those in our own solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).

Because we’ve been talking about SETI recently, I’ll mention that the SETI Institute has already subjected TRAPPIST-1 to a search using the Allen Telescope Array at frequencies of 2.84 and 8.2 gigahertz. The choice of frequencies was dictated by the researchers’ interest in whether a system this compact might have a civilization that had spread between two or more worlds. Searching for powerful broadband communications when planetary alignments between two habitable planets occur as viewed from Earth is thus a hopeful strategy, and as is obvious, the search yielded nothing unusual. A broader question is whether life might spread between such worlds through impacts and subsequent contamination.

What I’m angling for here is the relationship between a bold, unlikely observing strategy and a more orthodox study of planetary atmospheres. Both of these are ongoing, with the investigation of biosignatures a hot topic as we work with JWST but also plan for subsequent space telescopes like the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx). The gap in expectations between SETI at TRAPPIST-1 and atmosphere characterization via such instruments highlights what a shot in the dark SETI can be. But it’s a useful shot in the dark. We need to know that there is a ‘great silence’ and continue to poke into it even as we explore the likelihood of abiogenesis elsewhere.

But back to the Gillon paper. Here you’ll find the latest results on planetary dynamics at TRAPPIST-1 and the implications for how these worlds form, along with current data on their densities and compositions. Another benefit of the compact nature of this system is that the planets interact with each other, which means we get strong signals from Transit Timing Variations that help constrain the orbits and masses involved. No other system has rocky exoplanets with such tight density measurements. The three inner planets are irradiated beyond the runaway greenhouse limit, and recent work points to the two inner planets being totally desiccated, with volatiles likely in the outer worlds.

What we’d like to know is whether, given that habitable zone planets are found in M-dwarf systems (Proxima Centauri is an obvious further example), such worlds can maintain a significant atmosphere given irradiation from the parent star. This is tricky work. There are models of the early Earth that involve massive volatile losses, and yet today’s Earth is obviously life supporting. Is there a possibility that rocky planets around M-dwarfs could begin with a high volatile content to counterbalance erosion from stellar bombardment? Gillon sees TRAPPIST-1 as an ideal laboratory to pursue such investigations, one with implications for M-dwarfs throughout the galaxy. From the paper:

Indeed, its planets have an irradiation range similar to the inner solar system and encompassing the inner and outer limits of its circumstellar habitable zone, with planet b and h receiving from their star about 4.2 and 0.15 times the energy received by the Earth from the Sun per second, respectively. Detecting an atmosphere around any of these 7 planets and measuring its composition would be of fundamental importance to constrain our atmospheric evolution and escape models, and, more broadly, to determine if low-mass M-dwarfs, the larger reservoir of terrestrial planets in the Universe, could truly host habitable worlds.

Image: Belgian astronomer Michaël Gillon, who discovered the planetary system at TRAPPIST-1. Credit: University of Liége.

Thus the early work on TRAPPIST-1 atmospheres, conducted with Hubble data and sufficient to rule out the presence of cloud-free hydrogen-dominated atmospheres for all the planets in the system. But now we have early papers using JWST data, and the issues become more stark when we turn to work performed by Gwenaël Van Looveren (University of Vienna) and colleagues. While previous studies of the system have indicated no thick atmospheres on the two innermost planets (b and c), the Van Looveren team focuses specifically on thermal losses occurring as the atmosphere heats as opposed to hard to measure non-thermal processes like stellar winds.

Here the situation clarifies. Working with computer code called Kompot, which calculates the thermo-chemical structure of an upper atmosphere, the team has analyzed the highly irradiated TRAPPIST-1 environment, modeling over 500 photochemical reactions in light of X-Ray, ultraviolet and infrared radiation, among other factors. The results show strong atmospheric loss in the early era of system development, but take into account losses through the different stages of the system’s evolution. It’s important to keep in mind that a star like this takes between 1 and 2 billion years to settle onto the main sequence, a period of high radiation. It’s also true that even main-sequence M-dwarfs can show high levels of radiation activity.

The upshot: X-ray and UV activity declines very slowly in the first several billion years on the main sequence, and stellar radiation in these wavelengths is the main driver of atmospheric loss. Things look dicey for atmospheres on any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, and the Van Looveren model generalizes to other stars. From the paper:

The results of our models tentatively indicate that the habitable zone of M dwarfs after their arrival on the main sequence is not suited for the long-term survival of secondary atmospheres around planets of the considered planetary masses owing to the high ratio of spectral irradiance of XUV to optical/infrared radiation over a very long time compared to more massive stars. Maintaining atmospheres on planets like this requires their continual replenishment or their formation very late in the evolution of the planets. A further expansion of the grid and more detailed studies of the parameter space are required to draw definitive conclusions for the entire spectral class of M dwarfs.

Image: This is Figure 8 from the paper. Caption: Overview of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and the estimated habitable zone (indicated by the green lines, taken from Bolmont et al. 2017). We added vertical lines at the minimum distances at which atmospheres of various compositions could survive for more than 1 Gyr. Credit: Van Looveren et al.

Note the term ‘primary atmosphere.’ Primary atmospheres of hydrogen and helium give way to secondary atmospheres that are the result of later processes like volcanic outgassing and molecules breaking down under stellar radiation on the planet’s surface. The paper, then, is saying that the kind of secondary atmospheres in which we might hope to find life are unlikely to survive in this environment, although active processes on a given planet might still allow them. The paper ends this way:

Our conclusion from this work is therefore significant for terrestrial planets with a mass that is similar to the Earth’s mass that orbit mid- to late-M dwarfs such as TRAPPIST-1 near or inside the (final) habitable zone. For these planets, substantial N2/CO2 atmospheres are unlikely unless atmospheric gas is continually replenished at high rates on timescales of no more than a few million years (the loss timescales estimated in our work), for example, through volcanism.

I wouldn’t call this the death knell for atmospheric survival at TRAPPIST-1, nor do the authors, but the work points to the factors that have to be addressed in further study of the system, and the results certainly challenge the possibility of life-sustaining atmospheres on any of these planets. The Van Looveren work isn’t included in Michaël Gillon’s paper, which appeared just before its release, but I hope you’ll look at both and keep the Gillon available as the best current overview of TRAPPIST-1.

As to M-dwarf prospects in general, it’s one thing to imagine a high-radiation environment, with the possibilities that life might find an evolutionary path forward, but quite another to strip a planet of its atmosphere altogether. If that is the prospect, then the census of ‘habitable’ worlds drops sharply, for M-dwarfs make up somewhere around 80 percent of all the stars in the Milky Way. A sobering thought to close the morning as I head upstairs to grind coffee beans and rejuvenate myself with caffeine.

The papers are Gillon, “TRAPPIST-1 and its compact system of temperate rocky planets,” to be published in Handbook of Exoplanets (Springer) and available as a preprint. The Van Looveren paper is “Airy worlds or barren rocks? On the survivability of secondary atmospheres around the TRAPPIST-1 planets,” accepted at Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint).

Forbidden Worlds? Theory Clashes with Observation

Back before we knew for sure there were planets around other stars, the universe seemed likely to be ordered. If planet formation was common, then we’d see systems more or less like our own, with rocky inner worlds and gas giants in outer orbits. And if planet formation was a fluke, we’d find few planets to study. All that has, of course, been turned on its head by the abundant discoveries of exoplanets galore. And our Solar System turns out to be anything but a model for the rest of the galaxy. In today’s essay, Don Wilkins looks at several recent discoveries that challenge planet formation theory. We can bet that the more we probe the Milky Way, the more we’ll find anomalies that challenge our preconceptions.

by Don Wilkins

The past few decades have not been easy on planet formation theories. Concepts formed on the antiquated Copernican speculation, the commonality of star systems identical to the Solar System, have given way to the strangeness and variety uncovered by Kepler, Hubble, and the other space borne telescopes. The richness of the planetary arrangements defies easy explanation.

Penn State University researchers uncovered another oddity challenging current understanding of stellar system development. [1] Study of the LHS 3154 system reveals a planet so massive in comparison to its star that generally accepted theories of planet formation cannot explain the existence of the planet, Figure 1. LHS 3154, an “ultracool” star with a “chilly” surface temperature of 2,700 °K (2,430 °C; 4,400 °F), is an M-dwarf, a category that comprises three quarters of the stars in the Milky Way. Most of the light of LHS 3154 is in the infrared band. The M- dwarf star is nine times less massive than the Sun yet it hosts a planet 13 times more massive than Earth.

Figure 1. An artist rendition of the mass comparison between the Earth and Sun and the star LHS 3154, and its companion, LHS 3154b. Credit: Pennsylvania State University.

In current theories, stars form from condensing large clouds of gas and dust into smaller volumes. After the star forms, the left-over gas and dust which is a much smaller fraction of the original cloud, settles into a disk around the new star. From this much smaller mass, planets will condense, completing the star system. In these theories, the star consumes the major proportion of the progenitor clouds.

The Sun, for example, contains an estimated 99.8% of the mass of the Solar System. Only 0.2% is left over for the eight planets, various moons and asteroids.

The mass ratio comparing LHS 3154b to LHS 3154 is 117 times greater than mass ratio comparing the Earth to the Sun. LHS 3154b probably is Neptune-like in composition, completes its orbit in 3.7 Earth days and, the researchers believe, is a very rare world. Typically M-dwarves host small rocky bodies rather than gas giants.

According to current theories, once the star formed, there should not have been enough mass to form a planet as large as LHS 3154b. A young LHS 3154 disk dust-mass and dust-to-gas ratio must be ten times greater than what is typically observed surrounding an M-dwarf star to birth a giant such as LHS 3154b.

“The planet-forming disk around the low-mass star LHS 3154 is not expected to have enough solid mass to make this planet,” Suvrath Mahadevan, the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and co-author on the paper said. “But it’s out there, so now we need to reexamine our understanding of how planets and stars form.”

Mahadevan’s team built a novel spectrograph, the Habitable Zone Planet Finder (HPF), with the intention of detecting planets orbiting the coolest of stars. Planets orbiting low temperature stars might have surfaces cool enough to support liquid water and life. In looking for planets with liquid water, the team found, as often happens in research, something new, a massive planet to challenge current theories of stellar system formation.

Another discovery, this time by a Carnegie Institution for Science team, uncovered another challenging world. [2]

Figure 2. Artist’s conception a small red dwarf star, TOI-5205, and its out-sized companion TOI-5205b. Credit: Katherine Cain, the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“The host star, TOI-5205, is just about four times the size of Jupiter, yet it has somehow managed to form a Jupiter-sized planet, which is quite surprising,” observed Shubham Kanodia, who led the team which found TOI-5205b.

When TOI-5205b crosses in front of TOI-5205, the planet blocks about seven percent of the star’s light—a dimming among the largest known exoplanet transit signals.

The rotating disk of gas and dust that surrounds a young star gives birth to its planetary companions. More massive planets require more of the gas and dust left over as the star ignites. Gas planet formation, in the accepted theories, requires about 10 Earth masses of rocky material to produce the massive rocky core of the gas giant. Once the core is formed, it gathers gas from the surrounding clouds, resulting in the mammoth atmosphere of the giant planet.

“TOI-5205b’s existence stretches what we know about the disks in which these planets are born,” Kanodia explained. “In the beginning, if there isn’t enough rocky material in the disk to form the initial core, then one cannot form a gas giant planet. And at the end, if the disk evaporates away before the massive core is formed, then one cannot form a gas giant planet. And yet TOI-5205b formed despite these guardrails. Based on our nominal current understanding of planet formation, TOI-5205b should not exist; it is a ‘forbidden’ planet.”

Not all mysteries are confined to M-dwarfs. A sun-like star, an infant of 14 million years some 360 light years from Earth, hosts a gas giant six times more massive than Jupiter, that orbits the star at a distance twenty times greater than the distance separating Jupiter and the Sun, Figure 3. [3]

Figure 3. A direct image of the exoplanet YSES 2b (bottom right) and its star (center). The star is blocked by a coronagraph. Credit: ESO/SPHERE/VLT/Bohn et al.

The large distance from YSES 2b to the star does not fit either of the two most well-known models describing large gaseous planet formation. If YSES 2b formed by means of core accretion at such an enormous distance far from the star, the planet should be much lighter than what is observed as a result of scarcity of disk material at that distant location. YSES 2b is too massive to satisfy this theory.

Gravitationally instability, the second theorized method for producing gas giants, postulates very massive protostellar disks that are unstable, splintering into large clumps from which gas giants are directly formed. YSES 2b appears not massive enough to have been formed in this fashion.

In a third possibility, YSES 2b might have formed by core accretion much closer to its host star and migrated outwards. A second planet is needed to pull YSES 2b into the outer regions of the system, but no such planet has been located.

Observations by the current generation of space-borne telescopes have upset the theories of planet formation. Hot Jupiters, worlds orbiting pulsars, odd arrangements of worlds, super Earths, and wandering worlds flung close to a star then flying back have complicated the ideas of Laplace, See, Chamberlin and Moulton. Further study by the James Webb Space Telescope and its successors will only enliven the debate surrounding the origin of the planets.


[1] Guðmundur Stefánsson, Suvrath Mahadevan, Yamila Miguel, et al, “A Neptune-mass exoplanet in close orbit around a very low-mass star challenges formation models,” Science, 30 Nov 2023, Vol. 382, Issue 6674, pp. 1031-1035, DOI: 10.1126/science.abo0233.

[2] Shubham Kanodia et al, “TOI-5205b: A Short-period Jovian Planet Transiting a Mid-M Dwarf,” The Astronomical Journal (2023). DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/acabce

[3] Alexander J. Bohn et al. “Discovery of a directly imaged planet to the young solar analog YSES 2.” Accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics, www.aanda.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202140508

A Resonant Sub-Neptune Harvest at HD 110067

The ancient notion of the ‘music of the spheres’ sounds primitive until you learn something about planetary dynamics. Gravity is wondrous and can nudge planets in a given system into orbits that show an obvious mathematical ratio. Two planets in resonance can emerge, for instance, in a 2:1 ratio, where one goes around its star twice in the time it takes the second to orbit it once. Such linkages might seem almost coincidental to the casual observer until the coincidences begin to pile up.

In the exoplanet system at HD 110067, for example, resonance flourishes, so much so that we have six planets moving in a ‘resonance chain.’ No coincidence here, just gravity at work, although an actual coincidence is that just when I finished a post highlighting system dynamics in closely packed environments like TRAPPIST-1 as a ‘brake’ on inbound comets, an international team should reveal HD 110067’s resonance chain. It’s a beauty, for all six planets not only move in harmonic rhythm but also turn out to be transiting worlds. An orbital dance this complex is rare, but even more so is the ability to study such worlds thanks to the happenstance of our viewing angle.

Transits allow us to extract information, and plenty of it, including analysis of planetary atmospheres as light from the central star passes through them. Because complex resonances are in some sense ‘self-correcting,’ they tell us something about the history of the system, for planet migration during the period when the resonance is being established influences the final state of the system. In HD 110067 we have a mother lode of system harmonics around a star that, usefully enough, is fifty times brighter than TRAPPIST-1, where we have seven rocky planets in a resonant chain.

HD 110067 offers up all of this for that highly interesting category of planets called ‘sub-Neptunes,’ about which we’d like to know a lot more. 100 light years away in the constellation Coma Berenices, HD 110067’s resonance chain is obviously complex. The innermost planet makes three orbital revolutions as the second world makes two – a 3:2 resonance. But the chain continues: 3:2, 3:2, 3:2, 4:3, and 4:3, with the innermost planet making six orbits as the outermost planet completes one.

Image: A rare family of six exoplanets has been unlocked with the help of ESA’s Cheops mission. The planets in this family are all smaller than Neptune and revolve around their star HD110067 in a very precise waltz. When the closest planet to the star makes three full revolutions around it, the second one makes exactly two during the same time. This is called a 3:2 resonance. The six planets form a resonant chain in pairs of 3:2, 3:2, 3:2, 4:3, and 4:3, resulting in the closest planet completing six orbits while the outermost planet does one. CHEOPS confirmed the orbital period of the third planet in the system, which was the key to unlocking the rhythm of the entire system. This is the second planetary system in orbital resonance that CHEOPS has helped reveal. The first one is called TOI-178. Credit and copyright: ESA.

Untangling this particular chain was not easy. The astronomers used data from both ESA’s CHEOPS mission and the TESS space observatory to nail down the system architecture. Data from TESS determined the orbital periods of the innermost worlds to be 9 and 14 days. Observations from CHEOPS tagged planet d at 20.5 days and thus demonstrated that while the innermost planet revolves 9 times around the star, the second revolves six, and the third planet four times. The periods of the three outer planets could then be deduced as 31, 41 and 55 days respectively, with further analysis of the TESS data showing that no solution other than the 3:2, 3:2, 3:2, 4:3, 4:3 chain would work. Ground-based observations supplemented the TESS and CHEOPS data.

The analysis was led by Rafael Luque (University of Chicago) and published in Nature. Says Luque:

“This discovery is going to become a benchmark system to study how sub-Neptunes, the most common type of planets outside of the solar system, form, evolve, what are they made of, and if they possess the right conditions to support the existence of liquid water in their surfaces.”

TOI-178 offers a five-planet resonance chain that may include a sixth world in this system of transiting planets in the constellation Sculptor, some 200 light years out. The paper on HD 110067 takes note of the fact that resonant architectures like these imply a situation that has remained unchanged since the birth of the system, making them useful laboratories for planet formation and evolution. The planetary radii at HD 110067 range from 1.94 that of Earth to 2.85 times as large (1.94R to 2.85R), and the low densities found in the three planets whose mass has been measured point to the likelihood of large atmospheres dominated by hydrogen.

Image: Tracing a link between two neighbor planets at regular time intervals along their orbits creates a pattern unique to each couple. The six planets of the HD110067 system create together a mesmerizing geometric pattern due to their resonance-chain. © CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, Thibaut Roger/NCCR PlanetS.

Ann Egger (a graduate student at the University of Bern and a co-author of the paper on this work) notes what is ahead in the study of this system:

“The sub-Neptune planets of the HD110067 system appear to have low masses, suggesting they may be gas- or water-rich. Future observations, for example with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), of these planetary atmospheres could determine whether the planets have rocky or water-rich interior structures.”

The sheer beauty of the HD 110067 system comes across in the animation below:

Image: To-scale animation of the orbits of the six resonant planets in the HD110067 system. The pitch of the notes played when each planet transits matches the resonant change in orbital frequencies between each subsequent planet. The relative sizes of the planets is accurate, although their true size compared to the star is much smaller. Also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rrODAG7nmI.

The paper is Luque et al., “A resonant sextuplet of sub-Neptunes transiting the bright star HD 110067,” Nature 623 (November 29, 2023), 932-937 (abstract).

Tightening Proxima Centauri’s Orbit (and an Intriguing Speculation)

Although I think most astronomers have assumed Proxima Centauri was bound to the central binary at Alpha Centauri, the case wasn’t definitively made until fairly recently. Here we turn to Pierre Kervella (Observatoire de Paris), Frédéric Thévenin (Côte d’Azur Observatory) and Christophe Lovis (Observatoire Astronomique de l’Université de Genève). We last saw Dr. Kervella with reference to a paper on aerographite as a sail material, but his work has appeared frequently in these pages, analyzing mission trajectories and studying the Alpha Centauri system. Here he and his colleagues use HARPS spectrographic data to demonstrate that we have at Centauri a single gravitationally bound triple system. This is important stuff; let me quote the paper on this work to explain why (italics mine):

Although statistical considerations are usually invoked to justify that Proxima is probably in a bound state, solid proof from dynamical arguments using astrometric and radial velocity (RV) measurements have never been obtained at a sufficient statistical significance level. As discussed by Worth & Sigurdsson (2016), if Proxima is indeed bound, its presence may have impacted planet formation around the main binary system.

This is a six-year old paper, but I want to return to it now because a new paper from the same team will tighten up its conclusions and slightly alter some of them. We’ve gone from resolving whether Proxima is bound to the A/B binary to pondering the issues involved in the dynamical history of this complex system. That in turn can inform the ongoing search for planets around Centauri A and B at least in terms of explaining what we might find there and how these two systems evolved. The original paper on this work lays out the challenges involved in tracing the orbit of the red dwarf. For HARPS is exquisitely sensitive to the Doppler shifts of starlight, and these data, obtained between 2004 and 2016, contain potential booby traps for analysis.

Image: Pierre Kervella, of the Observatoire de Paris/PSL.

Convective blueshift is one of these. We’re looking at the star’s spectral lines as we calculate its motion, and some of these are displaced toward the blue end of the spectrum because of the structure of its surface convection patterns. The lifting and sinking of hot internal gases has to be factored into the analysis and its effect nulled out. The spectral lines are displaced toward the blue, in effect a negative radial velocity shift, although the effect is stronger for hotter stars. In the case of Proxima, Kervella’s team finds a relatively small convective blueshift, though still one to be accounted for.

A similar though more significant issue is gravitational redshift, which occurs as photons climb out of the star’s gravity well. Here the effect is “an important source of uncertainty on the RV of Proxima” whose value can be established and corrected. How the astronomers went about making these corrections is laid out in a discussion of radial velocities that aspiring exoplanet hunters will want to read.

Image: Orbital plot of Proxima showing its position with respect to Alpha Centauri over the coming millenia (graduations in thousands of years). The large number of background stars is due to the fact that Proxima is located very close to the plane of the Milky Way. Credit: P. Kervella/ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani.

Out of all this we learn that Proxima’s elliptical orbit around Centauri A and B’s barycenter extends from 800 billion kilometers when closest (periastron) to 1.9 trillion kilometers at apastron, its farthest distance, with an orbital period of approximately 550,000 years. The orbital phase is currently closest to apastron.

The Astronomy & Astrophysics site (this is the journal in which the paper above appeared) is currently down, so I’m quoting from the version of the paper on arXiv, which after noting that the escape velocity of Alpha Centauri at Proxima’s distance (545 +/- 11 m/s) is about twice as large as Proxima’s measured velocity, goes on to speculate in an intriguing way:

Proxima could have played a role in the formation and evolution of its planet (Anglada-Escudé et al. 2016). Conversely, it may also have influenced circumbinary planet formation around αCen (Worth & Sigurdsson 2016). A speculative scenario is that Proxima b formed as a distant circumbinary planet of the αCen pair, and was subsequently captured by Proxima. Proxima b could then be an ocean planet resulting from the meltdown of an icy body (Brugger et al. 2016). This would also mean that Proxima b may not have been located in the habitable zone (Ribas et al. 2016) for as long as the age of the αCen system (5 to 7 Ga; Miglio & Montalbán 2005; Eggenberger et al. 2004; Kervella et al. 2003; Thévenin et al. 2002).

The idea of Proxima b as a captured planet has not to my knowledge appeared anywhere else in the literature. I was fascinated, enough so that I dashed off a quick email to Dr. Kervella asking about this as well as the current status of the orbital calculations. And indeed, his response indicates new work in progress:

… we identified a mistake in our 2017 determination of the orbital parameters of Proxima. In the papier, they are expressed in the Galactic coordinate system, and the orbital inclination is thus not directly comparable to that of the Alpha Cen AB orbit. We are preparing a new publication with revised orbits and parameters for all three stars. The main difference is that now the orbital plane of Proxima is better aligned with that of AB. The gravitationally bound nature of Proxima with Alpha Cen AB is also strengthened, as we include new astrometry and radial velocities.

I’ll cover the new paper as soon as it appears. Dr. Kervella also observes that confirming a scenario of Proxima b as a captured planet would be difficult (Proxima b has ‘forgotten’ the history of its orbital evolution, as he puts it), meaning that working with astrometric data alone will not be sufficient. But the arrival of telescopes like the Extremely Large Telescope, now under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert with first light planned for 2028, should signal a treasure trove of new information. A spectrum obtained by ELT could show us whether Proxima b is indeed an ocean planet.

The paper on Proxima Centauri’s orbit is Kervella, Thévenin & Lovis, “Proxima’s orbit around α Centauri,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 598 (February 2017), L7 (abstract/preprint).

The Odds on Alpha Centauri

How extraordinary that the nearest star to Earth is actually a triple system, the tight central binary visually merged as one bright object, the third star lost in the background field but still a relatively close 13000 or so AU from the others. Humans couldn’t have a better inducement to achieve interstellar flight on the grounds of these stars alone. We get three stellar types: The G-class Centauri A, the K-class Centauri B, both of which are capable of hosting planets, perhaps habitable, of their own.

And then we have Proxima Centauri, opening up M-class red dwarf stars to close investigation, and we already know of a planet in the habitable zone there, adding to the zest of the venture. If extraterrestrial beings in a system like this would have even more inducement to travel, with another star’s planets perhaps as close to them as our own system’s worlds are to us, we humans are also spurred to undertake a journey, because 4.2 light years is a mere stone’s throw in the overall galactic distribution.

Image: The central binary at Alpha Centauri, with the two stars only resolved in the x-ray image. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/University of Colorado/T.Ayres; Optical: Zdenek Bardon/ESO.

I like this image, used by Dirk Schulze-Makuch to illustrate a recent popular science article, because it includes the Chandra X-Ray imagery. That’s how we can separate the central stars, which are at times nearly as close as Saturn is to the Sun while they orbit their common barycenter. Centauri Dreams readers will recognize Schulze-Makuch (Technical University Berlin and an adjunct professor at Washington State) not only as a prolific writer but the author of a host of scientific papers including many we’ve looked at in these pages. He’s played a valuable role in presenting astrobiological matters to the general public, part of the flowering of interstellar investigation that continues as we keep finding interesting worlds to explore.

If you’re wondering about Proxima Centauri’s location, the image below flags it. Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)/Digitized Sky Survey 2; Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani).

I like to keep an eye on what appears in the popular press from respected scientists, because they’re bringing credibility to matters that often get distorted by mainstream media attention (not to mention what happens on social media sites). We should always give a nod to scientists willing to explain their work and the broader issues involved given that kind of competition for the public’s attention. It’s interesting in this case to get Schulze-Makuch’s take on habitability at Alpha Centauri. He’s pessimistic about Proxima but is surprisingly bullish on Centauri A and B:

The other two stars in the system are believed to have planets, although they have not been confirmed. (A possible Neptune-size planet was reported in 2021 orbiting Alpha Centauri A at roughly the same distance as Earth orbits the Sun, but this could turn out to be a dust cloud instead.) The apparent lack of any brown dwarfs or gas giants close to Alpha Centauri A and B make the likelihood of terrestrial planets greater than it would be otherwise, at least in theory. The chances of a rocky, potentially habitable planet in our neighboring solar system might therefore be as high as 75 percent.

The Proxima Centauri problem is, of course, the X-ray flux, although Schulze-Makuch also considers tidal lock a distinct negative. The Chandra data (citation below) revealed a relatively benign influx of X-rays for Centauri A and B, making them fine hosts for life if it can develop there. But Proxima is deeply problematic, receiving an average dose of X-rays some 500 times greater than Earth’s, and some 50,000 times as great during periods of flare activity, which M-dwarfs are particularly prone to in their younger days.

Here the word ‘younger’ is a bit deceptive. Recall that this kind of star can live for several trillion years. That’s a bit humbling, considering that the universe itself is thought to be 13.8 billion years old. In that sense all M-dwarfs are ‘young.’

Just as we can zoom in via X-ray to see the central stars, we can also take a look at Proxima Centauri’s movements via spectroscopic data, which we’ll examine next time, along with a fascinating speculation on the origin of Proxima b.

For more on the X-ray environment at Alpha Centauri, see Ayres, “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads,” Research Notes of the AAS Vol. 2, No. 1 (January, 2018), 17 (abstract). The possibility of a ‘warm Neptune’ at Alpha Centauri is discussed in Wagner et al., “Imaging low-mass planets within the habitable zone of α Centauri,” Nature Communications 12, Article number: 922 (2021). Full text. We’ll be talking about this one a bit more in coming days.

Exoplanet Detection: Nudging Into the Rayleigh Limit

We’re building some remarkably large telescopes these days. Witness the Giant Magellan Telescope now under construction in Chile’s Atacama desert. It’s to be 200 times more powerful than any research telescope currently in use, with 368 square meters of light collection area. It incorporates seven enormous 8.5 meter mirrors. That makes exoplanet work from the Earth’s surface a viable proposition, but look at the size of the light bucket we need to make it work. Three mirrors like that shown below are now in place, and the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab is building number 6 now.

Image: University of Arizona Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab staff members Damon Jackson (left) and Conrad Vogel (right) in the foreground looking up at the back of primary mirror segment five, April 2019. Credit: Damien Jemison; Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Imaging an exoplanet from the Earth’s surface is complicated by the Rayleigh Limit, which governs the resolution of our optical systems and their ability to separate two point sources. Stephen Fleming showed the equation in his talk on super-resolution imaging at the Interstellar Research Group’s recent meeting in Montreal. I use few equations on this site but I’ll show this one because it’s straightforward and short:

θ = 1.22 * (λ / D)

Here λ is the wavelength and D is the diameter of the mirror. What this says is that there is a minimum angular separation (θ) that allows two point sources to be clearly distinguishable, which in terms of astronomy means we can’t pull useful information out of the image when they are closer than this. I’ve pulled the image below out of Wikipedia (in the public domain, submitted by Spencer Bliven).

Image: Two Airy disks at various spacings: (top) twice the distance to the first minimum, (middle) exactly the distance to the first minimum (the Rayleigh criterion), and (bottom) half the distance. This image uses a nonlinear color scale (specifically, the fourth root) in order to better show the minima and maxima.

Here we have another useful term: An Airy disk is a diffraction pattern that is produced when light moves through the aperture of a telescope system. Light diffracts – it’s in the nature of the physics – and the Airy disk is the best focused spot of light that a perfect lens with a circular aperture can make. We’re looking at light interfering with itself, so in the image, we have a central bright spot with surrounding rings of light and dark. The diffraction pattern depends upon the wavelength being observed and the aperture itself. This diffraction can be described as a point spread function (PSF) for any optical system, and essentially governs how tightly that system can be focused.

Bigger apertures matter as we try to deal with these limitations, and the Giant Magellan Telescope will doubtless make many discoveries, as will all of the coming generation of Extremely Large Telescopes. But when we want to see ever smaller objects at astronomical distances, we run into a practical problem. Nothing in the physics prevents us from building a ground-based telescope that could see an Earth-class planet at Alpha Centauri, but if we want details, Fleming notes, we would need a mirror 1.8 kilometers in diameter to retrieve a 40 X 40 pixel image.

The point of Fleming’s talk, however, was that we can use quantum technologies to nudge into the Rayleigh limitations and extract information about amplitude and phase from the light we do collect. That, in turn, would allow us to distinguish between point sources that are closer than what the limit would imply. The operative term is super-resolution, a topic that is growing in importance in the literature of optics, though to this point not so much in the astronomical community. This may be about to change.

Counter-intuitively (at least insofar as my own intuitions run), a multi-aperture telescope does a better job with this than a large single-aperture. Instead of a 3-meter mirror you use three 1.7 meter mirrors that are spaced out over, perhaps, an acre. This hits at mirror economics as well, because the costs of these enormous mirrors goes up more than exponentially. The more you can break the monolithic mirror into an array of smaller mirrors, you can add to the data gain but also sharply reduce the expense.

In terms of the science, Fleming noted that the point spread function spreads out when multiple smaller mirrors are used, and objects become detectable that would not be with a monolithic single mirror instrument. The technique in play is called Binary Spatial Mode Demultiplexing. Here the idea is to extract quantum modes of light in the imaging system and process them separately. The central mode – aligned with the point spread function of the central star – is the on-axis light. The off-axis photons, sorted into a separate detector, are from what surrounds the star.

So in a way we’re nudging inside the Rayleigh Limit by processing the light, nulling out or dimming the star’s light while intensifying the signal of anything surrounding the star. I’m reminded, of course, of all the work that has gone into coronagraphs and starshades in the attempt to darken the star while revealing the planets around it. In fact, some of the earliest research that convinced me to write my Centauri Dreams book was the work of Webster Cash out at the University of Colorado on starshades for this purpose, with the goal of seeing continents and oceans on an exoplanet. I later learned as well of Sara Seager’s immense contributions to the concept.

Thus far the simulations that have been run at the University of Arizona by Fleming’s colleagues have shown far higher detection rates for an exoplanet around a star using multi-aperture telescopes. In fact, there is a 100x increase in sensitivity for multi-aperture methods. This early work indicates it should be possible to identify the presence of an exoplanet in a given system with this ground-based detection method.

Can we go further? The prospect of direct imaging using off-axis photons is conceivable if futuristic. If we could create an image like this one, we would be able to study this hypothetical world over time, watching the change of seasons and mining data on the land masses and oceans as the world rotates. The possibility of doing this from Earth’s surface is startling. No wonder super-resolution is a growing field of study, and one now being addressed within the astronomical community as well as elsewhere.