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The first transiting exo-comets?

Transits of extra-solar planets are pretty routine these days, but planets are not the only bodies expected to be orbiting nearby stars. How about exo-comets? Unlike planets, comets are fuzzy and changeable, so exocomet transits would vary in shape and depth. A team led by Saul Rappaport have now searched the entire archive of Kepler lightcurves looking for dips that could be exocomet transits. Here’s one in the data for the star KIC 11084727:

The authors reproduce such dips (red line) with a model of a comet about the size of Halley’s comet and having a tail made of dust, hence giving an asymmetric dip. Another Kepler, KIC 3542116, shows six possible comet transits. Here are three:

WASP-20 is a binary star

The host star of the hot Jupiter WASP-20b has been found to be a binary star. A new paper by Daniel Evans et al finds WASP-20 to be a binary separated by 0.26 arcsecs, sufficiently close that the second star had not previously been noticed. Evans et al used the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to find the slightly dimmer companion:

WASP-20 is a binary star

The two stars, WASP-20 A and WASP-20 B seem to be gravitationally bound, and the planet appears to orbit the brighter star. The companion star is 61 astronomical units from the planet-hosting star, close enough that it might have had a gravitational effect on the orbit of the planet.

This is relevant since hot Jupiters are thought to have been created much further from their star than their current close-in orbits, and gravitational perturbations from a third body is one suggested mechanism for causing them to migrate inwards.

Radial velocities of the Sun as an exoplanet host star

The main way of measuring the mass of an extra-solar planet is to record the motion of the host star, caused by the gravitational tug of the planet as it orbits. One can do that by measuring the Doppler shift (radial velocity or RV) of the spectrum of the host star.

However, as a planet gets smaller or further from its star, the tug gets smaller, and so the radial-velocity signal decreases. At some point it gets smaller than the intrinsic variations in spectral lines caused by the magnetic activity of the star. Whether one can account for this will limit our ability to prove the existence of small planets in wide orbits.

Radial velocity of the Sun, bounced off the asteroid Vesta

A team lead by Raphaëlle Haywood, of the University of St. Andrews, and now at Harvard, had the idea of treating our own Sun as a star, by looking at the RV signal in sunlight bounced off the asteroid Vesta. They could then compare the RV signal to images of the magnetic activity on our Sun.

Magnetic activity on the Sun.

Magnetic activity across the Sun’s disc

The spectral lines from each region of the Sun’s disc will depend on the local magnetic activity, but the RV measurement bounced off Vesta would be from light averaged over the whole disc of the Sun, just as we’d record from a star.

The results are shown in the plot below. The top panel shows the variations in the measured RV signal, in metres per second. The second panel shows the magnetic flux aggregated across the Sun’s disc, in Gauss. The third panel shows the fraction of the Sun’s disc filled by magnetic activity (Sun spots).

Radial velocity variations of our Sun

Thus a Sun-like star can show intrinsic RV variability at a level of metres per second, and this will cause a problem for detecting the small RV signals of low-mass planets in wide orbits. For example our Earth produces motion in our Sun of only 0.1 metre per second. Unless there are stars much less magnetically active than our Sun, it is going to be hard to obtain an accuracy sufficient to detect the RV signal of an Earth-like planet in an Earth-like orbit.

The authors note, though, a strong correlation between the RV signal and the total magnetic activity. Thus it might be possible to decorrelate against magnetic activity to provide a way of correcting RV signals for this effect, and so dig out smaller signals caused by planets.

The proposed Twinkle mission to study exoplanet atmospheres

With over a hundred gas-giant exoplanets now known transiting relatively bright stars, thanks to WASP and other projects, scientific attention is being directed to characterising their atmospheres.

The proposed Twinkle spacecraft (Twinkle/Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd)

The proposed Twinkle spacecraft (Twinkle/Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd)

Twinkle is a new proposed satellite, led by a team from University College London, that would be dedicated to studying exoplanet atmospheres. The aim is for a relatively cheap and quick mission, but with a high scientific return.

Twinkle aims to analyse the atmospheres of 100 exoplanets using an infrared spectrograph. By comparing the spectra observed in and out of transit, and spacecraft will detect signatures of molecules in the transiting planet atmospheres.

The project needs £50 million to succeed. WASP planets would be prime targets for Twinkle, and so we hope that Twinkle gets funded and wish it every success.

The Twinkle team invite expressions of support at the Twinkle website.