Tag Archives: starspots

Super-Neptune WASP-107b has an oblique orbit

WASP-107b is only twice the mass of Neptune but nearly the radius of Jupiter. It is thus a hugely bloated and fluffy exoplanet and one of the more important of the recent WASP discoveries, being a prime target for atmospheric characterisation (see the discovery paper by Anderson et al 2017).

WASP-107b was also in the Campaign-10 field of the K2 mission, leading to a Kepler-quality photometric lightcurve. Recent papers by two teams, led by Teo Močnik and Fei Dai, have arrived at a similar conclusion: WASP-107b seems to be in an oblique orbit, rather than in an orbit aligned with the rotation axis of the host star.


The conclusion comes from star spots. If the orbit is aligned, consecutive transits will repeatedly cross the same star spot, producing a “bump” in the lightcurve each time, whereas if the orbit is oblique this will not happen.

Thus one can play the game of looking for transit bumps and seeing if they repeat. But spots can change, by growing or shrinking, so is a smaller bump in the next transit the same spot, or a different one? Also, if there is some uncertainty in the rotational period of the star, then we’re not fully sure exactly where in the next transit the spot will recur.

Star spots in transits of exoplanet WASP-107b

In the figure at left (in which the transit itself, between the dashed lines, has been removed, leaving only the starspot bumps), obvious spots are circled in red, while possible spots are marked with a lighter red. The rotational period of the star is nearly three times the orbital period of the planet, and so, if the spots recurred, they would be seen every three transits. (The gap, and thus the missing of transits 3, 4 and 5, arose from a spacecraft malfunction.)

The conclusion is that the star spots do not seem to recur and thus that WASP-107b is in an oblique orbit.

Long-lasting starspots on exoplanet-host Qatar-2

Planets transiting their star can cross a starspot, and that — since the spot is dimmer than its surrounding — causes an upward blip in the light-curve of the transit. The same starspot can be occulted in consecutive transits, and so is seen later in phase each time because the star has rotated between the transits.

An illustration of a starspot feature in consecutive transits.  Image by Klaus Felix Huber.

A starspot feature in three consecutive transits. Image by Klaus Felix Huber.

Keele University PhD student Teo Močnik has looked at the Kepler K2 lightcurve of Qatar-2, a star known to host a hot Jupiter in a 1.34-day orbit. The lightcurve records 59 consecutive transits over a 79-day period and Močnik finds that most of the observed transits are affected by starspots (link to paper).

In the plot below each numbered lightcurve is from a transit, which occurs between the vertical dashed lines. The transit profile itself, however, has been subtracted in order to better show the starspot features.

Starspots in transits of exoplanet host Qatar-2

The starspots occur in groups, shown by red ellipses, and each group is the same starspot being seen in consecutive transits. Interestingly, though, the groups of spots themselves recur. Thus the starspots are lasting long enough that they pass behind the limb of the star, and then re-appear to be transited again one stellar rotation cycle later!

One particular starspot first causes the features in transits 20 to 22, then comes round again to produce the features in transits 33 to 36, and then comes round once again to produce the features in transits 46 to 50. Thus the starspot must have lasted for at least 40 days.

We thus have one of the best observations yet of a starspot on a star other than our sun. From this information we can calculate the rotation period of the star, place limits on the size, position and longevity of the spots, and also show that the planet’s orbit is closely aligned with the spin axis of the star.

Starspots on WASP-85 from K2 transits

If, during a transit of its star, an exoplanet crosses a star spot, it will be covering a region that is dimmer than the rest of the star. Since less light will be being occulted, we will see a small increase or “bump” in the transit profile. WASP-85 was recently observed by the K2 mission, getting sufficiently high-quality photometry that it could reveal such starspot `bumps”.

Here is the transit proflle, from a paper by Teo Močnik et al, which contains all the K2 data folded in:

WASP-85b transit profile observed with Kepler K2.

Teo Močnik then subtracted the overall transit profile, thus showing the departures from the average behaviour, and produced a plot of each transit:

WASP-85 starspots observed with K2

The vertical dashed lines show the regions in transit. The lightcurve bumps circled in red are starspots being occulted. (Blue arrows are times when K2 fired its thrusters, which can cause a feature in the lightcurve.)

The interesting question is whether a bump recurs in the next transit, but shifted later in phase, as it would if the same starspot is being occulted again. This would happen if the planet’s orbit is aligned with the stellar rotation. In that case, as the star rotates, the spot moves along the line of transit, to be occulted again next transit.

Aligned orbit star spot occultation

An illustration of a planet occulting a star spot when the planet’s orbit and the star’s rotation are aligned. Graphic by Cristina Sanchis Ojeda

To judge whether the starspot bumps repeat, Teo gave all the co-authors a set of lightcurves and asked them to judge which features in the lightcurve were genuine bumps. But, to avoid human bias, he first scrambled the order of the lightcurves, so that the co-authors didn’t know which lightcurve came next.

The result is that we think that starspots do repeat, shown by the red linking lines in the above figure. This shows that the planet’s orbit is aligned, and it also allows us to estimate the rotational period of the star.