From Many Worlds: “A Four Planet System in Orbit, Directly Imaged and Remarkable”



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Marc Kaufman

The star HR 8799 has already played a pioneering role in the evolution of direct imaging of exoplanets. In 2008, the Marois group announced discovery of three of the four HR 8799 planets using direct imaging for the first time. On the same day that a different team announced the direct imaging of a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut.

This false-color composite image traces the motion of the planet Fomalhaut b, a world captured by direct imaging. (NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas, University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)

This is an up to date image of the HR8799 planetary system from the December 2010 press release. To be used on the HR8799 page. From W. M. Keck Observatory

Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

HR 8799 is 129 light years away in the constellation of Pegasus. By coincidence, it is quite close to the star 51 Pegasi, where the first exoplanet was detected in 1995. It is less than 60 million years old, Wang said, and is almost five times brighter than the sun.

Much can be learned from the motion of the planets, however long it may take for them to circle their sun. Based on the Keck observations, astronomers have concluded that the four planets orbit in roughly Keplerian motion around the star — almost circular, but not entirely.

The planets are quite far from each other, which is to be expected due to their enormous size. Because of those large separations, Wang said astronomers will be watching to see if the system is stable or if some of the planets may be ejected from the system.

Although the first three HR 8799 planets were officially discovered in 2008, researchers learned afterwards that the planets had actually already been observed. The “precovery” had been made in 1998 by the NICMOS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope, but was teased out only after a newly developed image-processing technique was installed.

The forth HR 8799 planet was found after further observations in 2009–2010. That planet orbits inside the first three planets, but is still fifteen times the distance from its sun than Earth to our sun. (The team working with Marois included Quinn Konopacky of the University of California, San Diego, Bruce Macintosh of Stanford University and Travis Barman of the University of Arizona.)

James Graham is leader of the Berkeley NExSS group, and he was struck by some of the connections between what has been found around HR 8799 and what exists in our own solar system.

For instance, he said that “it’s delightful that these recently discovered planets exhibit the same type of harmony exhibited by the Galilean moons, Io, Europa, and Ganymede (1:2:4) and illustrating some of the connections between our own solar system and those orbiting other stars. ”

The outer planet orbits inside a dusty disk like our Kuiper Belt. It is one of the most massive disks known around any star within 300 light years of Earth, and there is room in the inner system for rocky planets.

Both Wang and Marois are also on the team operating the Gemini Planet Imager, a cutting-edge addition to the Gemini South telescope in Atacama Desert of Chile.

NOAO Gemini Planet Imager on Gemini South
NOAO Gemini Planet Imager on Gemini South

Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile

The GPI includes a next-generation adaptive optics instrument that allows for much clearer seeing through the Earth’s atmosphere by correcting for turbulence. The result is better direct imaging. A key goal of the GPI project is to image large extrasolar planets orbiting at distances from their host stars similar to, or greater than, between Jupiter and our sun.

It was initially thought (and hoped) that the plant might transit in front of Beta Pictoris, providing a unique opportunity to learn the radius of the planet and thus understand the size of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the geometry of the planet’s orbit doesn’t quite line up in a way that would have the planet pass in front of the star from our point of view.

However, although the planet doesn’t transit, what is called its Hill sphere does. The Hill sphere is the region surrounding the planet where its gravitational influence dominates over the gravitational influence of the star. As a result, the remnants of the disk left over from planet formation, planetary rings and moons could transit the star later this year and may be detectable.

Those smaller bodies are unlikely to be the subject of any evocative movie animations, but direct imaging will be bringing many more of them to us in the days ahead.

“The Beta Pic animation looked so cool that we’ve wanted to do more,” Wang said, explaining why the HR 8799 movie was made. “We wanted to make one that was even more impactful for the audience and could begin to show what one of these systems looks like.”

I think they succeeded.

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About Many Worlds

There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

About NExSS

The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.