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The Closest Black Hole to Earth

Black holes are such exotic objects that they somehow suggest great distance. We’re learning about the black holes at the center of many galaxies even as we’re just beginning to catalog the location of smaller ones elsewhere. But we’re also learning through gravitational wave studies about their interactions and have begun to find black holes closer to home. Thus the just announced discovery of a black hole 1,000 light years from Earth. A long way, to be sure, but the closest ever found to our planet.

Evidence for the object comes from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, deduced by a team of astronomers led by Thomas Rivinius from observations of two companion stars. This is, in other words, a triple system, and one that can be seen with the naked eye at that. The system is located in Telescopium, its stars viewable without binoculars or telescope on a clear southern hemisphere night. In fact, here’s where to look.

Image: This chart shows the location of the HR 6819 triple system, which includes the closest black hole to Earth, in the constellation of Telescopium. This map shows most of the stars visible to the unaided eye under good conditions and the system itself is marked with a red circle. While the black hole is invisible, the two stars in HR 6819 can be viewed from the southern hemisphere on a dark, clear night without binoculars or a telescope. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope.

The system is HR 6819, which was under study by the Rivinius team as part of an effort targeting double-star systems. It took the FEROS spectrograph on the La Silla instrument to show that one of the two visible stars orbits an unseen object every 40 days. The other star is at a large distance from the inner star/black hole pairing.

Image: This artist’s impression shows the orbits of the objects in the HR 6819 triple system. This system is made up of an inner binary with one star (orbit in blue) and a newly discovered black hole (orbit in red), as well as a third star in a wider orbit (also in blue). The team originally believed there were only two objects, the two stars, in the system. However, as they analysed their observations, they were stunned when they revealed a third, previously undiscovered body in HR 6819: a black hole, the closest ever found to Earth. The black hole is invisible, but it makes its presence known by its gravitational pull, which forces the luminous inner star into an orbit. The objects in this inner pair have roughly the same mass and circular orbits. The observations, with the FEROS spectrograph on the 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla, showed that the inner visible star orbits the black hole every 40 days, while the second star is at a large distance from this inner pair. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

We are dealing with a stellar-mass black hole that shows no visible interactions with its environment, and thus had to be deduced from the orbit of the nearby star. As lead author Rivinius notes: “An invisible object with a mass at least 4 times that of the Sun can only be a black hole.” A reasonable conclusion, and a black hole that stands in contrast to the black holes previously discovered in the galaxy, nearly all of which are detectable through strong X-ray emissions as they affect nearby matter.

If we’ve found a black hole this comparatively close to the Solar System, what does this say about their numbers elsewhere? Rivinius speaks in terms of hundreds of millions of black holes, considering how many stars have ended their existence through gravitational collapse into such objects over the lifetime of the galaxy. Marianne Heida (ESO), a co-author of the paper, points to signs of another such system:

“We realised that another system, called LB-1, may also be such a triple, though we’d need more observations to say for sure. LB-1 is a bit further away from Earth but still pretty close in astronomical terms, so that means that probably many more of these systems exist. By finding and studying them we can learn a lot about the formation and evolution of those rare stars that begin their lives with more than about 8 times the mass of the Sun and end them in a supernova explosion that leaves behind a black hole.”

Image: This wide-field view shows the region of the sky, in the constellation of Telescopium, where HR 6819 can be found, a triple system consisting of two stars and the closest black hole to Earth ever found. This view was created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin.

We may also gain insights into the cosmic mergers that gravitational wave astronomy has shown us by studying systems like HR 6819. In such cases, we may be dealing with systems where the inner pairing is made up of two black holes, or a black hole and a neutron star. In that scenario, the outer star in the triple system could interact gravitationally so as to cause a merger that releases gravitational waves.

Before ending today’s article, I want to mention that the Rivinius paper is dedicated to the memory of the Czech astronomer Stanislav (Stan) Štefl, who died recently at age 58 in a car accident in Santiago, Chile. A tribute can be found here. Dr. Štefl worked at ESO Headquarters as a research associate and, from 2004 until 2012, was a Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) support astronomer at Paranal Observatory. For the past year and a half, he had been on assignment to the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array (ALMA), working in Santiago and at Chajnantor.

Although we discuss objects and distances at scales that defy the imagination, our community is a relatively small one. Such losses are wounds for us all.

The paper is Rivinius et al., “A naked-eye triple system with a non-accreting black hole in the inner binary,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 637, L3 (May, 2020). Abstract.


Polarimetry Probes Brown Dwarf Clouds

It will surprise few Centauri Dreams readers that at least some brown dwarfs have bands of clouds, just as we see similar bands on our Solar System’s largest planet. In fact, three brown dwarfs have recently shown signs of cloud banding, and today’s subject, Luhman 16, has previously been analyzed in terms of large cloud patches. I think new work based on data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile may be less significant for what it says about brown dwarfs than what it says about how we study them.

Image: Illustration comparing the masses of planets, brown dwarfs, and stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).

For the work in question, reported in a paper from Maxwell Millar-Blanchaer (Caltech) and colleagues, is the first time polarimetry has been put to work to infer bands in brown dwarf clouds. Polarization tells us the direction that a light wave oscillates. Millar-Blanchaer likens polarimetric instruments to polarized sunglasses — here, one direction of polarization is blocked to reduce glare — but adds that astronomers are less concerned with reducing glare than measuring it. Light reflecting off cloud droplets can favor a measurable angle of polarization.

We’re beginning to see methods to analyze polarized light cropping up more and more in astronomy, with implications for exoplanets. Thus Dimitri Mawet (Caltech), a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

“Polarimetry is receiving renewed attention in astronomy. Polarimetry is a very difficult art, but new techniques and data analysis methods make it more precise and sensitive than ever before, enabling groundbreaking studies on everything from distant supermassive black holes, newborn and dying stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets, all the way down to objects in our own solar system.”

Image: Astronomers have found evidence for a striped pattern of clouds on the brown dwarf called Luhman 16A, as illustrated here in this artist’s concept. The bands of clouds were inferred using a technique called polarimetry, in which polarized light is measured from an astrophysical object much like polarized sunglasses are used to block out glare. This is the first time that polarimetry has been used to measure cloud patterns on a brown dwarf. The red object in the background is Luhman 16B, the partner brown dwarf to Luhman 16A. Together, this pair is the closest brown dwarf system to Earth at 6.5 light-years away. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).

Luhman 16 draws attention for being the closest known brown dwarf binary, approximately 6.5 light years away. Both brown dwarfs weigh in at roughly 30 times Jupiter’s mass, examples of ‘failed stars’ that formed from collapsing clouds of gas but lacked the mass to ignite hydrogen fusion. Millar-Blanchaer and team used the VLT’s NaCo instrument (Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System, coupled with the Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph called CONICA) to study the polarized light from both of the Luhman brown dwarfs. Luhman 16A’s polarization can only be explained by bands of clouds, while the data on bands are inconclusive for Luhman 16B. The latter’s variability in brightness seems to be the result of irregular, patchy clouds instead.

Consider what we’re doing here. It took NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to find Luhman 16 in 2013, and Millar-Blanchaer’s team now detects clouds through polarization that cannot be directly resolved. The scientists used atmospheric modeling run against measurements of the polarized light to infer the presence of the cloud bands on Luhman 16A.

“To determine what the light encountered on its way we compared observations against models with different properties: brown dwarf atmospheres with solid cloud decks, striped cloud bands, and even brown dwarfs that are oblate due to their fast rotation. We found that only models of atmospheres with cloud bands could match our observations of Luhman 16A,” says Theodora Karalidi (University of Central Florida), a member of the discovery team.

The beauty of using polarimetry this way is that it is sensitive to cloud properties, a trait that should serve us well not only with brown dwarf atmospheres but those of exoplanets. A follow-up study is on the way that will examine later observations looking for short- and long-term variability in the polarization. Meanwhile, the current work confirms the existence of banded clouds near the L/T transition in brown dwarfs, an evolution in spectral type that ultimately results in relatively cloud-free regions across the brown dwarf disks. The previously studied cloud bands have all been in similar L/T transition dwarfs. From the paper:

We have demonstrated that polarimetry provides a promising avenue to answer this question; variability occurrence rates and amplitudes decline outside of the L/T transition, and therefore many targets are unsuitable to cloud mapping via variability monitoring. High-accuracy targeted polarimetric studies sensitive to cloud bands similar to those found in this study may therefore be critical to furthering our understanding of the cloud dynamics in substellar objects. The characterization presented herein relies heavily on previous characterization of Luhman 16. Similar polarimetric studies should be pursued for other brown dwarfs with comparable levels of characterization (e.g., brown dwarfs with well-constrained masses and/or inclinations).

So we have a path forward in studying brown dwarf atmospheres and, potentially, the atmospheres of giant exoplanets. Follow-up work on Luhman 16’s two brown dwarfs is complicated by the fact that the NaCo instrument package has just been decommissioned , but other near-infrared polarimeters are out there, and we should anticipate new atmospheric studies growing out of the data they collect. Bear in mind that the WFIRST mission will be able to conduct polarimetry, which may be its first application using reflected light to study giant exoplanet atmospheres.

The paper is Millar-Blanchaer et al., “Detection of Polarization due to Cloud Bands in the Nearby Luhman 16 Brown Dwarf Binary,” Astrophysical Journal Vol. 894, No. 1 (5 May 2020). Abstract.


Enhancing Our View of Europa

Space exploration has been filled with its share of frustrations, the most obvious being the lack of follow-up with travel to the Moon following Apollo 17. That’s been a 50-year gap and counting, but a gap of half that size is also unsettling. It was in late 1995 that the Galileo probe began orbital operations at Jupiter, and since then we’ve had to rely on its imagery of Europa when we needed close up views of the ocean-filled moon. While we await Europa Clipper, scheduled for 2024 launch, and Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), slated by ESA for a departure in 2022, we’re still refining Galileo images in preparation for future flybys.

One thing the newly touched up images should remind us of is that Europa Clipper is going to give us views of much larger parts of Europa’s surface at high resolution, complementing but considerably extending what Galileo was able to do. The latter was a mission with its own set of frustrations, of course, as a recollection of its unusable high gain antenna makes clear, but the superb work by ground controllers in recovering these Europa images is an object lesson in getting the most out of the equipment you’ve got left. Let’s hope Europa Clipper runs into no comparable difficulties.

Image: This image shows a transitional location between blocky chaos terrain, on the left, and ridged plains on the right. A few chaos blocks are visible on the left as individually broken and rotated pieces of preexisting surface material; their shadows indicate that some of these blocks have tilted as well. A ridge passes through the center of this image. These ridges, which contain arc-shaped segments joined together by a series of cusps, may be related to how the icy surface crust of Europa fractures when subjected to stresses from Jupiter’s strong gravity. The right side of this image shows a few lenticulae, which are small rounded surface features, commonly domed in appearance. The image resolution is 247 yards (226 meters per pixel, and this image depicts an area about 180 miles (300 kilometers) across. Credit: Mario Valenti / SETI Institute / NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The three images here were captured on the eighth of Galileo’s targeted flybys, showing features as small as 460 meters in size. They were taken through a clear filter in grayscale, with lower-resolution images from the same region on a different flyby used to map color onto the grayscale, producing, at a cost of considerable time and processing power, what we see here. These are enhanced-color images, thus exaggerating color variations to bring out the chemical composition of the surface. The light blue or white areas are predominantly water ice, while reddish areas are laden with other materials, like salts.

Image: This image shows a region of Europa’s surface covered with ridges and bands, with a few small disrupted chaos regions. Ridges, a common surface feature type, may form when a crack in the surface opens and closes repeatedly, building up a feature that’s typically a few hundred yards tall, a few miles wide and that can stretch horizontally for thousands of miles. In contrast, bands are locations where a crack appears to have continued pulling apart horizontally, producing large, wide, relatively flat features. This image shows both ridges and bands, which interact with each other in complex ways that are somewhat similar to tectonic activity on the Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

All three images were captured in the spacecraft’s 17th orbit of Jupiter (E17), with the lower-resolution color images used for mapping taken in orbit E14. The striking thing about the Europan surface has always been its relative youth, some 40 to 90 million years old, meaning what we see is much younger than the moon itself, which would have formed 4.6 billion years ago. This is one of the youngest surfaces in the Solar System, a place of long linear ridges and bands that indicate crustal stretching under the influence of Jupiter’s strong gravity.

Image: A region of blocky chaos terrain, where the surface has broken apart into many smaller chaos blocks that are surrounded by featureless matrix material. Many of the chaos blocks have moved sideways, rotated, or tilted before being refrozen into their new locations, and some larger blocks preserve features of the pre-existing terrain before it was broken up. Using these features as clues, scientists have been able to reconstruct some chaos regions like jjgsaw puzzles to track the motion of blocks. Cutting through the chaos terrain near the bottom, from left to right, is a broad flat band. Called Agenor Linea, it is one of the longest bands on Europa and is distinctive for its two-color appearance, with a bright region at the top and a darker region below. Another rare bright band, Katreus Linea, cuts across the top portion of this image. The image resolution is 243 yards (222 meters) per pixel, and this image depicts an area about 170 miles (280 kilometers) across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

Europa Clipper will conduct numerous flybys of Europa as we try to learn more about the ocean now believed to exist beneath the icy crust, and its interactions with the surface. The disrupted areas known as ‘chaos terrain’ are particularly interesting, as they show blocks of surface material that have been moved through gravitational stresses and then refrozen into a new location. The jigsaw puzzle analogy JPL uses to describe them is exactly on target.

Image: The locations on Europa depicted in the newly processed images, with Chaos Transition at top. This image is centered approximately at 6.4 degrees north latitude, and 135.3 degrees east positive longitude. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

Original plans for a Europa orbiter were scrapped at least partly due to concerns over the radiation levels produced by Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Instead, we’ll get over 40 close flybys as Europa Clipper makes its way around the giant planet in an elliptical orbit. The JUICE mission will conduct two Europa flybys of its own, while adding multiple flybys of Callisto before settling into orbit around Ganymede. By the end of this decade, then, we should start updating these spectacular images with high-resolution views of entirely new terrain, and the long wait for a return to Europa will finally end.


Harold “Sonny” White’s investigations into controversial concepts like EMdrive and Alcubierre warp drive physics at Eagleworks Laboratories (located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston) received a good deal of attention in the interstellar community. In a recent email, Dr. White told me that he left NASA in December of 2019 and is now affiliated with the Limitless Space Institute, serving as its Director of Advanced Research and Development. The recently launched LSI is creating a series of initiative grants in support of interstellar research. What follows is the news release LSI has just released.

Limitless Space Institute announces biennial Interstellar Initiative Grants (I2 Grants)

Limitless Space Institute is launching biennial research grants with the goal of providing measurable and consistent support for pursuing interstellar research called Interstellar Initiative Grants. This call for proposals is seeking to support grants that can be categorized as either a tactical grant (≤$100k) or a strategic grant (≤$250k), with the former focused on research papers and the latter on laboratory testing. The anticipated period of performance for the grants is expected to be ~12-14 months in duration, with a start date by the end of September 2020. It is LSI’s vision that by establishing the Interstellar Initiative Grants, and by conducting these grant awards on a biennial cycle, LSI will help grow and mature the capabilities of the interstellar research community. For more information, see https://www.limitlessspace.org/

Email Contact: jan@limitlessspace.org

About LSI

Limitless Space Institute is a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire and educate the next generation to travel beyond our solar system and to research and develop enabling technologies. LSI advances the pursuit of relevant deep space exploration R&D through the following three approaches:

• Internal R&D: pursuing in-house basic research at the Eagleworks Laboratories near Johnson Space Center.

• External R&D: directly funding selected R&D projects through I2 Grants.

• Collaborative R&D: advancing research in collaboration with university partners.

LSI was founded by Dr. Kam Ghaffarian, previously founder of the award-winning contractor Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies and recognized by Ernst & Young as Entrepreneur of the Year. LSI’s president is Brian “BK” Kelly, who served with NASA for 37 years, most recently as Director of Flight Operations, responsible for selecting astronauts and planning and implementing human spaceflight missions. Dr. Harold “Sonny” White leads LSI’s Advanced R&D, bringing decades of research experience in the advanced power and propulsion domain, most recently serving as the NASA Johnson Space Center Engineering Directorate’s Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead.

Image: A Bussard ramjet in flight, as imagined for ESA’s Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction project. Credit: ESA/Manchu.


Transit timing variations are useful to astronomers trying to learn what forces are acting upon a known exoplanet. They could eventually help us ferret out the existence of a sufficiently large moon, for example, though we have yet to confirm one. But they also show us how much impact other planets in the same system can have upon the planet being observed.

All this is why the Kepler-88 system has been high on the list of interesting targets for astronomers. Before the recent discovery of a new gas giant, we knew about Kepler-88 b and c, one of them (the outer world Kepler-88 c) about 20 times more massive than Kepler-88 b, a planet less massive than Neptune. The story here was the mean motion resonance, in which planet c, a Jupiter-mass world, orbits the star in 22 days while Kepler-88 b orbits in 11: Two orbits of b in the time it takes c to make a single orbit. Planet b is the only transiting planet in this system; Kepler-88 c was confirmed by radial velocity methods.

The mass differential is telling, so that the more massive Kepler-88 c causes notable transit timing variations in Kepler-88 b. In fact, the Kepler mission was able to detect TTVs of up to half a day forced by Kepler-88 c. These are to my knowledge the largest transit timing variations yet observed. All of that makes the system interesting in its own right, but now we have word of another planet here, Kepler-88 d, which turns out to be about three Jupiter masses.

The radial velocity discovery, which also confirmed the existence, mass and orbital period of Kepler-88 c, was made by a team led by Lauren Weiss (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy), using the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument on the 10-meter Keck I telescope in Hawaii. The discovery paper appears in The Astronomical Journal.

Image: An artist’s illustration of the Kepler-88 planetary system. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory / Adam Makarenko.

“At three times the mass of Jupiter, Kepler-88 d has likely been even more influential in the history of the Kepler-88 system than the so-called king, Kepler-88 c, which is only one Jupiter mass,” says Weiss. That influence is a reference to the effects of a gas giant in a Jupiter-like orbit (the planet is in an elliptical orbit around Kepler-88 with a period of four years). Jupiter is assumed to have affected cometary orbits in the early days of the Solar System, drawing materials rich in volatiles into the inner system where they would have been part of the mechanism for producing oceans on Earth.

But this is a stellar system that will have a much different fate than our own. The host star Kepler-88 is a massive B-class object, highly luminous and with a lifetime lasting only in the low millions of years. No habitable zone worlds to nourish with oceans or, at least, no such worlds with a billion-year timeframe for life to flourish.

ADDENDUM See andy’s comment below, and also Mike Fidler’s — the B-class statement in the paragraph above is is incorrect, and the result of discrepancies between the sources. It looks as though this is a G-class object and I’m trying to confirm that.

Later: I’m going with andy’s assessment — this is a G-class star, as given by the paper’s data on it: 5466 K, 0.985 solar masses and 0.900 solar radii. Other sources also peg it as a G, so I think we have to assume that the B-class identification that appears in some online sources is incorrect.

Even so, it’s friendly to planet formation. According to the paper, finding multiple giant planets is not surprising, because of the high metallicity of the star. The paper goes on to speculate about planet formation and the likelihood of early migration:

Since both planets c and d are gas giants, they must have formed early in the disk lifetime, when gas was abundant… Perhaps additional giant planets were present earlier, or are still present. Planets c and d likely underwent viscous (Type I) migration in the proto-planetary disk. As the gas disk dissipated, planet-planet scattering would likely have increased, and low and high-eccentricity migration likely became important at this time. The high eccentricity of planet d probably arose due to a significant exchange of angular momentum with another gas-giant planet.

The smaller Kepler-88 b, then, may have formed when gas was less abundant in the early disk, and the authors believe that the world could have been caught in its current mean motion resonance with Kepler-88 c during the period of early inward migration of planet c.

The paper is Weiss et al., “The Discovery of the Long-Period, Eccentric Planet Kepler-88 d and System Characterization with Radial Velocities and Photodynamical Analysis,” Astronomical Journal Vol. 159, No. 5 (29 April 2020). Abstract / Preprint.


Exoplanet Atmospheres: Recalibrating Our Models

We may be measuring planetary temperatures with less than optimum tools. Calling it a “new phenomenon,” Cornell University’s Nikole Lewis described the background of a just published paper looking into hot Jupiter temperatures. Lewis had been increasingly puzzled by earlier work on the matter, which produced temperatures colder than scientists expected. The deputy director of the Carl Sagan Institute, Lewis joined colleagues Ryan MacDonald and Jayesh Goyal in looking for the reason, reporting their results in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

What emerged was the need to fine-tune our analysis of exoplanet atmospheres, as delivered by the technique called transmission spectroscopy, in which the light of a parent star is filtered through a planetary atmosphere during a transit. Have a look, for example, at an illustration of the hot-Jupiter WASP-43b as it transits its star. Scientists have been able to construct temperature maps for the planet as well as probing its atmosphere to understand the molecular chemistry within. But the data on atmospheric composition have to be interpreted correctly.

Image: In this artist’s illustration the Jupiter-sized planet WASP-43b orbits its parent star with a year lasting just 19 hours. The planet is tidally locked, meaning it keeps one hemisphere facing the star, just as the Moon keeps one face toward Earth. The color scale on the planet represents the temperature across its atmosphere. This is based on data from a 2014 study (not the Lewis paper) that mapped the temperature of WASP-43b in more detail than had been done for any other exoplanet at that time. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI).

Hot Jupiters orbit close enough to their star to become tidally locked, while the intense gravitational forces at work can cause the planet to bulge, making it egg-shaped. What we would expect is a wide range of temperatures, varying by thousands of degrees, between the blistering ‘day’ side of the star and the frigid side turned away from the star. Averaging temperatures like these can be a problem, according to the Cornell researchers, and the range of temperatures likewise can promote entirely different chemistry between the two sides.

“When you treat a planet in only one dimension, you see a planet’s properties – such as temperature – incorrectly,” Lewis said. “You end up with biases. We knew the 1,000-degree differences were not correct, but we didn’t have a better tool. Now, we do.”

Let’s dig into this. We have over 40 examples of hot Jupiters with transmission spectra, meaning that the science of exoplanet atmospheres is becoming established — eventually, we’ll drill down to smaller rocky worlds to learn about possible biosignatures, but for now, we’re detecting various atoms and molecules in the atmospheres of close-in gas giants. Observations of high enough precision can use transmission spectroscopy to learn about temperatures at the terminator, the zone where day meets night and the temperature contrast can be huge.

Both optical and near-infrared data are needed to draw accurate conclusions. The anomaly that the authors are addressing is that almost all of the retrieved temperatures for hot Jupiters are cooler than planetary equilibrium temperatures derived for the planet. In fact, the retrieved temperatures for most hot Jupiters are between 200 and 600 K cooler than the equilibrium temperature ought to be. The equilibrium temperature is the point at which the planet emits as much thermal energy as it receives from the star. It is commonly denoted as Teq.

The authors propose that the colder temperatures being found via transmission spectra are the result of the use of 1-dimensional models. The atmosphere at the terminator is more complex than the 1D model can show. They call for more complex 3D general circulation models (GCM) to replace them. Sets of differential equations are put to work in a GCM, with the planet divided into a 3-dimensional grid and analyzed in terms of winds, heat transfer, radiation and other factors, taking into account their interactions with other parts of the grid. The difference is striking, as the image below, drawn from the paper, demonstrates.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: Schematic explanation of the cold retrieved temperatures of exoplanet terminators. Left: a transiting exoplanet with a morning-evening temperature difference (observer’s perspective). Differing temperature and abundance profiles encode into the planet’s transmission spectrum. Right: the observed spectrum is analysed by retrieval techniques assuming a uniform terminator. The retrieved 1D temperature profile required to fit the observations is biased to colder temperatures. Credit: MacDonald et al.

Thus the earlier models bias the results toward colder temperatures. And this can be significant in our evaluation of planetary atmospheres, as the paper notes:

Those [chemical] species exhibiting compositional differences have retrieved 1D abundances biased lower than the true terminator-averaged values. Even species uniform around the terminator (here, H2O) are biased, though to higher abundances. Compositional biases become more severe as the retrieved P-T profile deviates further from the true terminator temperature. In the most extreme case, the retrieved H2O abundance is biased by over an order of magnitude, such that one would incorrectly believe a solar-metallicity atmosphere was 15 × super-solar at > 3σ confidence.

We need to resolve this matter, then, to conduct more accurate atmospheric work. The paper continues:

The retrieved cold temperatures of exoplanet terminators in the literature can be explained by inhomogenous morning-evening terminator compositions. The inferred temperatures arise from retrievals assuming uniform terminator properties. We have demonstrated analytically that the transit depth of a planet with different morning and evening terminator compositions, when equated to a 1D transit depth, results in a substantially colder temperature than the true average terminator temperature. This also holds for state-of-the-art retrieval codes, with the added complication that retrieved chemical abundances can also be significantly biased.

Using the older models has meant that the temperatures of hot Jupiters thus far measured may be biased by hundreds of degrees below their true value. The figure reaches 1000 K in the case of ultra-hot Jupiters. An implication here is that the chemistry derived from the older models is less reliable. The authors call for the use of more sophisticated retrieval tools, acknowledging the increased computer overhead involved with 3D approaches but arguing that such models will produce more accurate data on atmospheric temperatures and composition.

The paper is MacDonald et al., “Why Is it So Cold in Here? Explaining the Cold Temperatures Retrieved from Transmission Spectra of Exoplanet Atmospheres,” Astrophysical Journal Letters Vol. 893, No. 2 (23 April 2020). Abstract / preprint.


Into the Magellanics

Somehow it feels as if the Hubble Space Telescope has been with us longer than the 30 years now being celebrated. But it was, in fact, on April 24, 1990 that the instrument was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery, being deployed the following day. 1.4 million observations have followed, with data used to write more than 17,000 peer-reviewed papers. It’s safe to say that Hubble’s legacy will involve decades of research going forward as its archives are tapped by future researchers. That’s good reason to celebrate with a 30th anniversary image.

I’m reminded that the recent work we looked at on the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov involved Hubble as part of the effort that detected the highest levels of carbon monoxide ever seen in a comet so close to the Sun. Using Hubble data is simply a given wherever feasible. And given yesterday’s article on star formation and conditions in the Sun’s birth cluster that may have produced leftover material from other stellar systems still orbiting our star, it’s worth noting the portrait Hubble just took of two extraordinary nebulae that are part of a star-formation complex.

Image: This image is one of the most photogenic examples of the many turbulent stellar nurseries the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has observed during its 30-year lifetime. The portrait features the giant nebula NGC 2014 and its neighbor NGC 2020 which together form part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, approximately 163,000 light-years away. Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI.

Here we’re deep in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This is a visible-light image showing NGC 2014 and NGC 2020, which although appearing separate here, are part of a large star-forming region filled with stars much more massive than the Sun, many of them with lifetimes of little more than a few million years. Dominating the image, a group of stars at the center of NGC 2014 has shed the hydrogen gas and dust of stellar birth (shown in red) so that the star cluster lights up nearby regions in ultraviolet while sculpting and eroding the gas cloud above and to the right of the young stars. Bubble-like structures within the gas churn with the debris of starbirth.

At the left, NGC 2020 is dominated by a star 200,000 times more luminous than the Sun, a Wolf-Rayet star 15 times more massive than our own. Here the stellar winds have again cleared out the area near the star. According to the ESA/Hubble Information Center, the blue color of the nebula is oxygen gas being heated to 11,000 degrees Celsius, far hotter than the surrounding hydrogen gas. We should keep in mind when seeing such spectacular imagery that massive stars of this kind are relatively uncommon, but the processes at work in this image show how strong a role their stellar winds and supernovae explosions play in shaping the cosmos.

Inevitably I’m reminded of science fictional treatments of the Magellanics, especially Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), in which a symbiotic race living in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is the most advanced life form in the galaxy. But let’s also remember that when Arthur C. Clarke’s starship leaves the Sun in Rendezvous with Rama (1973), it’s headed for the LMC. Among scores of other references, from Haldeman’s The Forever War to Blish’s Cities in Flight, I’m particularly fond of Robert Silverberg’s less known Collision Course, probably because a shorter version fired my imagination as a boy in a copy of Amazing Stories I still possess.

Image: The brilliant Cele Goldsmith was editing Amazing Stories by the time the July, 1959 issue containing “Collision Course” came out. The full novel would be published in 1961.

There is something about what you would see in the night sky from a satellite galaxy, as opposed to our own view of the Milky Way from within its disk, that fires the imagination. For an entirely different view of the galaxy, read Poul Anderson’s World Without Stars (1966), as discussed in these pages back in 2014 in The Milky Way from a Distance.


Identifying Asteroids from Other Stars

Objects of interstellar origin in our own Solar System continue to draw attention. Comets from other stars like 2I/Borisov give us the chance to delve into the composition of different stellar systems, while the odd ‘Oumuamua still puzzles astronomers. Comet? Asteroid?

Now we have a paper from Fathi Namouni (Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, France) and Maria Helena Morais (Universidade Estadual Paulista, Brazil) targeting what the duo believe to be a population of asteroids captured from other stars in the distant past. Published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the paper relies on a high-resolution statistical search for stable orbits, ‘unwinding’ these orbits back in time to explain the location of certain Centaurs, asteroids moving perpendicular to the orbital plane of the planets and other asteroids.

Centaurs, most of which do not occupy such extreme positions, are a population of asteroids moving between the outer planets in what have until now been considered unstable orbits. The ones Namouni and Morais focus on are not recent interstellar ‘interlopers’ like ‘Oumuamua and Borisov, but objects that may have been drawn into the Sun’s gravitational pull at a time when the Solar System was still in formation, some 4.5 billion years ago. In those days, the Sun would have been part of a star cluster, with many young stars in close proximity. The authors believe they can identify 19 asteroids that once orbited other stars and now orbit the Sun.

Image: A stellar nursery in the Lobster Nebula (NGC6357), where star systems exchange asteroids as our Solar System is thought to have done 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: ESO / VVV Survey / D. Minniti. Acknowledgement: Ignacio Toledo (CC BY 4.0).

The authors delve into the dynamical evolution of Centaurs through statistical searches for stable orbits, to find out whether any could have survived from the days of the Solar System’s formation. In 2018, Namouni and Morais produced a paper using these methods that led to the identification of a retrograde co-orbital asteroid of Jupiter called (514107) Ka‘epaoka‘awela as an object of likely interstellar origin. The new study extends their simulations to the past orbits of 17 high-inclination Centaurs and two trans-Neptunian objects (2008 KV42 and (471325) 2011 KT19) with polar orbits. From the paper:

The statistical distributions show that their orbits were nearly polar 4.5 Gyr in the past, and were located in the scattered disc and inner Oort cloud regions. Early polar inclinations cannot be accounted for by current Solar System formation theory as the early planetesimal system must have been nearly flat in order to explain the low-inclination asteroid and Kuiper belts. Furthermore, the early scattered disc and inner Oort cloud regions are believed to have been devoid of Solar system material as the planetesimal disc could not have extended far beyond Neptune’s current orbit in order to halt the planet’s outward migration. The nearly polar orbits of high-inclination Centaurs 4.5 Gyr in the past therefore indicate their probable early capture from the interstellar medium.

The conclusion that these high-inclination Centaurs had polar inclinations at the time of the Solar System’s formation can be tested by further observations to firm up their orbits in comparison to the simulated results. It’s a natural leap from that possibility to the Sun’s birth cluster of stars, which would have supplied plentiful source material in the form of asteroids and comets available for capture. Thus the idea that all Centaurs are on unstable orbits is contradicted by 4.5 billion year orbits for high-inclination Centaurs, as well as some lower-inclination Centaurs like Chiron, which the authors also factored into their computations:

Either Chiron is an outlier that belonged to the planetesimal disc and whose cometary activity by some unknown mechanism increased its inclination far above the planetesimal disc’s mid-plane, or it could be itself of interstellar origin. Asteroid capture in the Sun’s birth cluster does not necessarily favour objects whose orbits have or evolve to polar or high-inclination retrograde motion (Hands et al. 2019). An astronomical illustration of the principle may be found in the distribution of the irregular satellites of the giant planets. Applying the high-resolution statistical stable orbit search to low-inclination Centaurs is likely to shed light on the possible common capture events that occurred in the early Solar system.

The paper is Namouni et al., “An Interstellar Origin for High-Inclination Centaurs,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Volume 494, Issue 2 (May 2020), pp. 2191–2199. Abstract / preprint. And on the interesting question of Jupiter’s retrograde co-orbital asteroid and its possible interstellar origins, the paper is Namouni and Morais, “An interstellar origin for Jupiter’s retrograde co-orbital asteroid,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters 21 May 2018 (abstract).


An Image of Proxima Centauri c?

I’m keeping an eye on the recent attention being paid to Proxima Centauri c, the putative planet whose image may have been spotted by careful analysis of data from the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-Contrast Exoplanet Research) imager mounted on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. A detection by direct imaging of a planet found first by radial velocity methods would be a unique event, and the fact that this might be a planet in the nearest star system to our own makes the story even more interesting.

I hasten to add that this is not Proxima b, the intriguing planet in the star’s habitable zone, but the much larger candidate world, likely a mini-Neptune, that has been identified but not yet confirmed. Proxima Centauri c could use a follow-up to establish its identity, and this direct imaging work would fit the bill if it holds up. But for now, the planet is still a candidate rather than a known world. From the paper:

While we are not able to provide a firm detection of Proxima c, we found a possible candidate that has a rather low probability of being a false alarm. If our direct NIR/optical detection of Proxima c is confirmed (and the comparison with early Gaia results indicates that we should take it with extreme caution), it would be the first optical counterpart of a planet discovered from radial velocities. A dedicated survey to look for RV planets with SPHERE lead to non-detections (Zurlo et al. 2018b).

But we’re not far enough along to spend much time on this in these pages — a great deal of follow-up work will be needed to nail down what is at best an unlikely catch. I call it that because it strains credulity to believe that we would find a planet whose mass suggests a world far less bright than this one is (if indeed it is a planet), with a luminosity that demands something like a huge ring system to explain it. Other explanations will need to be ruled out, and that’s going to take time. The radial velocity work on Proxima Centauri c points to a world of a minimum six Earth masses, orbiting 1.5 AU out. But if this direct imaging work has indeed identified (and confirmed) Proxima c, it is a planet with a most unusual makeup:

If real, the detected object (contrast of about 16-17 mag in the H-band) is clearly too bright to be the RV [radial velocity] planet seen due to its intrinsic emission; it should then be circumplanetary material shining through reflected star-light. In this case we envision either a conspicuous ring system (Arnold & Schneider 2004), or dust production by collisions within a swarm of satellites (Kennedy & Wyatt 2011; Tamayo 2014), or evaporation of dust boosting the planet luminosity (see e.g. Wang & Dai 2019). This would be unusual for extrasolar planets, with Fomalhaut b (Kalas et al. 2008), for which there is no dynamical mass determination, as the only other possible example. Proxima c candidate is then ideal for follow-up with RVs observations, near IR imaging, polarimetry, and millimetric observations.

So good for Raffaele Gratton (INAF – Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, Italy) and colleagues for pursuing this investigation and for suggesting the numerous ways it can be approached with various follow-up methods. And kudos to Mario Damasso (Astrophysical Observatory of Turin) as well. Damasso was lead author of the discovery paper on Proxima Centauri c, and it was he who suggested to Gratton that the SPHERE instrument might just be able to detect it.

Now we have a wait on our hands before we have anything definitive. At this point we have a possible detection that is tantalizing but definitely no more than tentative. Meanwhile, here’s a figure from the paper that gives an idea what Gratton and team are talking about.

Image: This is Figure 2 from the paper. The SPHERE images were acquired during four years through a survey called SHINE, and as the authors note, “We did not obtain a clear detection.” The figure caption in the paper reads like this: Fig. 2. Individual S/N maps for the five 2018 epochs. From left to right: Top row: MJD 58222, 58227, 58244; bottom row: 58257, 58288. The candidate counterpart of Proxima c is circled. Note the presence of some bright background sources not subtracted from the individual images. However, they move rapidly due to the large proper motion of Proxima, so that they are not as clear in the median image of Figure 1. The colour bar is the S/N. S/N detection is at S/N=2.2 (MJD 58222), 3.4 (MJD 58227), 5.9 (MJD 58244), 1.2 (MJD=58257), and 4.1 (MJD58288). Credit: Gratton et al.

The paper is Gratton et al., “Searching for the near infrared counterpart of Proxima c using multi-epoch high contrast SPHERE data at VLT,” accepted at Astronomy & Astrophysics (abstract).


HD 158259: 6 Planets, Slightly Off-Tune

What an exceptional system the one around HD 158259 is! Here we have six planets, uncovered with the SOPHIE spectrograph at the Haute-Provence Observatory in the south of France, with the innermost world also confirmed through space-based TESS observations. Multiple things jump out about this system. For one thing, all six planets are close to, but not quite in, a 3:2 resonance. That ‘close to’ tells the tale, for researchers believe there are clues to the formation history of the system within their observations of this resonance.

Image: In the planetary system HD 158259, all pairs of subsequent planets are close to the 3:2 resonance : the inner one completes about three orbits as the outer completes two. Credit & Copyright: UNIGE/NASA.

The primary, HD 158259, is itself interesting, in that it’s a G-class star about 88 light years out, an object just a little more massive than our Sun. But tucked well within the distance of Mercury from the Sun we find all six of the thus far discovered planets. In fact, the outermost planet orbits at a distance 2.6 times smaller than Mercury’s, making this a compact arrangement indeed. Five of the planets are considered ‘mini-Neptunes’, while the sixth is a ‘super-Earth.’

The innermost world masses about twice the mass of Earth, while the five outer planets weigh in at about six times Earth’s mass each. The 3:2 resonance detected here runs through the entire set of planets, so that as the planet closest to the star completes three orbits, the next one out completes two, or close to it (remember, this is an ‘almost resonant’ situation). And so on — the second planet completes three orbits while the third completes about two.

Nathan Hara (University of Geneva), who led the study, likens the resonance to music, saying “This is comparable to several musicians beating distinct rhythms, yet who beat at the same time at the beginning of each bar.” The researchers involved (who used, by the way, the same telescope deployed by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz in their ground-breaking detection of 51 Pegasi b in 1995, though with added help from SOPHIE) believe that the ‘almost resonances’ here suggest that what had been a tight resonance was disrupted by synchronous migration.

In other words, the six planets would have formed further out from the star and then moved inward together. As Hara puts it:

“Here, ‘about’ is important. Besides the ubiquity of the 3:2 period ratio, this constitutes the originality of the system. Furthermore, the current departure of the period ratios from 3:2 contains a wealth of information. With these values on the one hand, and tidal effect models on the other hand, we could constrain the internal structure of the planets in a future study. In summary, the current state of the system gives us a window on its formation.”

And here’s how the paper deals with the issue;

…period ratios so close to 3:2 are very unlikely to stem from pure randomness. It is therefore probable that the planets underwent migration in the protoplanetary disk, during which each consecutive pair of planets was locked in 3:2 MMR [mean-motion orbital resonance]. The observed departure of the ratio of periods of two subsequent planets from exact commensurability might be explained by tidal dissipation, as was already proposed for similar Kepler systems (e.g., Delisle & Laskar 2014). Stellar and planet mass changes have also been suggested as a possible cause of resonance breaking (Matsumoto & Ogihara 2020). The reasons behind the absence of three-body resonances, which are seen in other resembling systems (e.g., Kepler-80, MacDonald et al. 2016), are to be explored.

It’s interesting that while other systems with compact planets in near-resonance conditions have been detected (TRAPPIST-1 is the outstanding example, I suppose, but as we see above, Kepler-80 also fits the bill), this is the first to have been found through radial velocity methods. According to the authors, the method demands a high number of data points and accurate accounting of possible instrumental or stellar noise in the signal. In this work, 290 radial velocity measurements were taken, and supplemented by the TESS transit data on the inner planet.

Compact systems with multiple planets on close orbits do not appear only among M-dwarfs like HD 158259. Kepler-223, for example, is a G-class star with four known planets. Here the orbital periods are 7, 10, 15 and 20 days respectively. The Dispersed Matter Planet Project (DMPP) has turned up data on an F-class star (HD 38677) with four massive planets with orbital periods ranging from 2.9 to 19 days. The ancient Kepler-444 is a K-class star with five evidently rocky worlds orbiting the star in less than ten days.

Rather than the size of the star, at least one recent paper argues that metallicity is a key factor in producing compact systems (Brewer et al., (2018) “Compact multi-planet systems are more common around metal-poor hosts,” Astrophys J 867:L3). Clearly we have much to learn about planet formation and migration in compact systems. Such systems are near or below the current detection limits of radial velocity surveys — this is where the work on HD 158259 truly stands out — but they are good targets for transit studies. It will be instructive to see what TESS comes up with as it continues its work.

The paper is Hara et al., “The SOPHIE search for northern extrasolar planets. XVI. HD 158259: A compact planetary system in a near-3:2 mean motion resonance chain,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 636, L6 (April 2020). Abstract / preprint.