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.
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 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).
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.