Astronomers track long, strange voyage of distant planet

Sep 28, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- University of Pittsburgh planet hunters based at the Allegheny Observatory were one of nine teams around the world that tracked a planet 190 light-years from Earth making its rare 12-hour passage in front of its star. The project resulted in the first ground-based observation of the entire unusually drawn out transit and established a practical technique for recording the movement of other exoplanets, or planets outside of Earth’s solar system, the teams reported in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Pitt team, led by Melanie Good, a graduate student of physics and astronomy in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, observed the planet HD 80606b for more than 11 hours on Jan. 10 as it passed in front of its star, HD 80606, located more than 1.14 quadrillion miles from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. The Pitt group included Michael Wood-Vasey, a professor of physics and astronomy; Louis Coban of the Allegheny Observatory; and physics and astronomy undergraduate students Shane Cerutti, Korena Costello, Maya Hunt, Gary Lander Jr., Eric Roebuck, Chelsea Vincent, and Gwendolyn Weaver, all part of Good’s research group, Survey of Transiting at the University of Pittsburgh, or STEPUP.

HD 80606b is among the strangest of the 500 exoplanets yet discovered, Good said. Approximately four times the size of Jupiter, the gaseous planet is scorchingly close to its star and follows an oblong orbit similar to that of Halley’s Comet. At its farthest, the planet is almost as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun, while at its closest, it is just 3 percent of that distance so that the planet’s temperature jumps thousands of degrees as it nears HD 80606. And while most exoplanets complete their transit within a few hours, HD 80606b traipses along for nearly 12—and only makes the trip every 16 weeks.

Both characteristics of HD 80606b’s transit make it difficult for a single observatory to observe all of it, according to the article in The . Coordinated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Barbara, the nine-team project demonstrated that multiple observatories working together can capture such long transits in their entirety.

As HD 80606b moved, the research groups recorded the transit from their respective vantage points. The data was then combined to reveal unknown information about the planet, such as its mid-transit point and the precise transit duration. The effort included teams working from the Wise Observatory in Israel; the Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands; Observatoire de Haute Provence in France; Rosemary Hill Observatory in Florida; the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona; the Table Mountain Observatory in California; the George R. Wallace Jr. Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts; and the Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii.

In addition to the HD 80606 project, Pitt’s STEPUP team has tracked the transit of approximately half a dozen extrasolar planets in the past six months, Good said. Group members also are helping make upgrades to the Allegheny Observatory that will allow them to use and control the Observatory’s 30-inch Thaw telescope from Pitt’s Oakland campus.

Explore further: Telescopes hint at neutrino beacon at the heart of the Milky Way

More information: Journal paper: iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/722/1/880

Provided by University of Pittsburgh

4.9 /5 (12 votes)

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kevinrtrs
2.2 / 5 (5) Sep 28, 2010
Given the very unusual orbit, it'll be a tough ask to come with with an accretionary theory explanation for the origins of this planet.
yyz
4.9 / 5 (7) Sep 28, 2010
"Given the very unusual orbit, it'll be a tough ask to come with with an accretionary theory explanation for the origins of this planet."

Astronomers don't believe objects like HD 80606b were formed in the highly elliptical orbits we see today. Similar to the many 'hot Jupiters' observed, these object are thought to have formed at greater average distances from their parent star. Since their formation, other mechanisms (ie close encounters with other planets in the system) have produced the orbits we see today (hot Jupiters or high eccentricity).
LKD
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
That's quite a speed the planet has acquired. 8 weeks to travel 150 million miles?
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2010
eh, I suspect we are going to see some crazy stuff in the future, like a gas giant following the path of a comet or a rocky planet the size of jupiter. I think its fair to say (assuming the math deems these plausible senarios) that every possible orbit and planet type exists somewhere out there, though there will be commonalities and rarities.
Quantum_Conundrum
5 / 5 (3) Sep 28, 2010
gunslingor1:

Rocky planets ranging from 10 earth masses upward are classified as "Super-Earths".

A 10 earth mass "Super-Earth" of same average composition ironically only has about 2.15 times the surface gravity of Earth. But the atmospherice pressure would likely by around 40 times as great if it has the same relative size atmosphere mass to terrestrial mass. So a planet that size could still be habitable to humans with the help of technology, but I think that would be the upper limit as everyone would be very, very weak and require exoskeletons most of the time.

However, for some planets I think it would be very hard, if not impossible, to distinguish a super-earth with a very thick atmosphere from a gas giant from a distance of tens or hundreds of light years.
Quantum_Conundrum
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
Ok, so a Super-earth with proportional atmospheric mass probably is a bit too much surface pressure, 40 earth atmospheres, but you might be able to build floating cities in the atmosphere, and use robots and pressurized vehicles to mine resources from the surface.

If you were going to colonize a super earth, I guess the atmosphere would need to be slightly thin with respect to proportional earth mass...

But the bonus is that nobody would be obese. With a weight slightly more than double, everyone would need to be in perfect physical shape and consume about double calories to survive, which means Americans could eat about the same way they do now and be in perfect health...
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (3) Sep 28, 2010
2.15 isn't that big a boost in gravity. You'd adapt to that rather quickly depending on your blood consistency. The issue I see with gravity of that magnitude would be the stresses on your joints over prolonged time periods as well as the stresses on the lower half of your circulatory system.
gunslingor1
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 28, 2010
Gees, why you astronomers always focusing on colonizing earth like planets? Really ready use this one up and move on to destroy the next or what? lol. Seems to be the attitude recently.

Anyway, I'm out of my field. Real interesting stuff though. My point was, due to the numbers involved, everything orbit, size, composition, and number of planets possible are probably going to be present somewhere. I'm not looking for a new home, though perhaps a second home would be nice.
Skeptic_Heretic
4.7 / 5 (6) Sep 28, 2010
Gees, why you astronomers always focusing on colonizing earth like planets? Really ready use this one up and move on to destroy the next or what? lol. Seems to be the attitude recently.
Not hardly. We're all for colonizing other planets so that life on this one doesn't get snuffed out by accident or through natural causes. We only have another 2 million or so years on this one until it isn't viable due to solar influx. If apophis goes through the keyhole when it passes we're good and screwed. Those are just two unpreventable disasters that await us, then you have caldera volcanoes, our industrial waste, other unknown objects zipping into the solar system, etc.

There's a reason why an inexperienced chef will cook two souffles instead of one, because they're so delicate that you better have a backup handy in case of catastrophe. When it comes to species, we're a pretty inexperienced chef.
Quantum_Conundrum
5 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2010
I wonder if anyone has every tried to model weather on a 10 earth mass super-earth?

I was thinking about this, and with higher gravity and higher pressure the water cycle would be greatly inhibited, because it would take much more energy to vaporize water at a higher pressure, and it would take much more energy for the water to rise vs the 2.15g gravity.

So instead of puffy clouds, thunderstorms, and seasonal hurricane you might end up with dense fogs, horizontal banding like on saturn and jupiter, and probably polar vortices. Just a guess, but again, I've never seen anyone from NASA or discovery or other groups do any real weather modeling for a 10 earth planet at 1A.U. distance from a "sun-like" star.

A start might be to simply scale earth up proportionally and see what happens.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2010
The biggest short term benefit to studying other planets is that they can do comparative planetology and actually learn new things about Earth.

On a side note: A planet with double the gravity of Earth, even with an identical atmosphere, would actually be quite different than Earth. The chemestry of the atmosphere would be quite a bit different. Relative humidity, dew points, pressure gradients, wind strength, etc. would all be different. Imagine the physical force of a 100 mile per hour wind, for example, if the air was twice as dense. Imagine the power of a waterfall or a wave. The chemical makeup of the atmosphere would be different too, even with the same elemental proportions, due to differences in solubility and chemical reaction effects. For example, things oxidize more easily under higher pressure. People may adapt quickly to the gravity, but there may be long term damaging effects from the effects of higher air pressure on your internal chemistry. This has been studied.
gunslingor1
4.5 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2010
I suppose friends, but I think the search for earth like planets with an emphasis on colonization (as most discovery channel programs like to talk about, more than the planets discovered) is a real science fiction distraction from extremely interesting science.

Plus, if we ever do find a new earth, it's just going to give marjon an excuse to reck this place, lol.

Anyway skeptic, I think we have billions not millions of years before the planet becomes permantently unviable. There probably will be a number of mass extinction events before then of course.

I have a questions about giant earths and jupiters. Okay, so if we take a super jupiter and keep adding gasses, eventually gravity will cause fusion and you'll have a type of star. What will happen if you keep adding rocks to a giant earth? I'm sure there is a point where any spherical body with enough mass will start fusion, but has anyone done the calcs for a rocky planet?

Wade wants to "ask the universe".
Skeptic_Heretic
4.6 / 5 (5) Sep 28, 2010
Anyway skeptic, I think we have billions not millions of years before the planet becomes permantently unviable. There probably will be a number of mass extinction events before then of course.
In a few million years the solar influx will be so high that large bodies of liquid water are an impossibility. Main sequence stars heat up over time.
What will happen if you keep adding rocks to a giant earth? I'm sure there is a point where any spherical body with enough mass will start fusion, but has anyone done the calcs for a rocky planet?
Too many unfusable elements would prevent it. The iron content alone would prevent fusion.
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
In a few million years the solar influx will be so high that large bodies of liquid water are an impossibility. Main sequence stars heat up over time

No way dude, can't be. Life has been on this planet for 3.5 billion years. Are you really telling me humans just happened to stumble onto the scene in the last few million years of the planets viability? I do think your wrong. With my limited understanding of the standard model of cosmology, our sun is in the middle of it's life and has about 4 billion years of relative stability before it BEGINS to pulsate and become a red giant and change.

Can anyone confirm what skeptic is saying? Is our planet dead in a few million years?

Too many unfusable elements would prevent it.

These elements have formed in supernova, along with things like uranium. If fusion never could take hold in a rocky star sized planet, then gravity would overcome thermodynamic forces and a black hole would form quickly.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (3) Sep 28, 2010
According to the sources I can find, the largest size for a terrestrail planet is thought to be about 10 earth masses. That would equate to about twice the radius of Earth. When you get bigger than that, they start to resemble Neptune more than Earth, according to theory and observation so far.

yes, you won't get fusion of carbon or anything heavier than carbon without an extremely violent event such as a supernova.

From the wiki page about the sun: "The increase in solar temperatures is such that already in about a billion years, the surface of the Earth will become too hot for liquid water to exist,"
yyz
1 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
@gunslingor1,

"With my limited understanding of the standard model of cosmology, our sun is in the middle of it's life and has about 4 billion years of relative stability before it BEGINS to pulsate and become a red giant and change."

That's pretty much my understanding. Solar output may vary by a small amount over that time, but not enough to boil away our oceans. When hydrogen at the core is depleted, core helium flash is initiated, setting up conditions for helium 'burning' in the core and marking our sun's move off the main sequence toward the red giant stage(in ~4Gyrs).
Quantum_Conundrum
4.7 / 5 (3) Sep 28, 2010
gunslingor1:

It was claimed recently on discovery that the earth probably would be uninhabitable in about 1.5 BILLION years.

However, if fusion rocketry is possible, then humans will have colonized nearly every habitable star in the galaxy by then, assuming it isn't interrupted by the Apocalypse, and even have fully populated dyson spheres on some of them. Fusion rocketry would allow humans to cross the entire galaxy in 100 to 1000ly increments, populate everything along the way, and send more colony ships to the surounding 100 to 1000ly radius, etc.
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
All interesting, I'm out of my prime in regards to these subjects.
Gawad
5 / 5 (3) Sep 28, 2010
Gunslingor, chill, we're safe for now. Solar influx increases by 6% to 10% every billion years (your milage varies). So...while the sun still has about 4 to 5 billion years to go before it enters its red giant phase, life on Earth will become impossible long before then. The maximum time span that I've seen quoted for ANY life on Earth to exist is rightly 1.5 billion years for the most generous estimates. At that point the oceans will have boiled off the surface, plate tectonics ceased and Earth will look essentially like Venus does today. Estimates for the viability of "life as we know it", meaning large, complex organisms generally range from 300 million to 1 billion years, with 500 million being a pretty safe bet. Humans, BTW, are the only species yet on Earth that *may* have the wherewithall to extend the possibility of life on the planet by billions of years by manipulating the Earth's biosphere and orbit over the (very) long term. Granted the odds are slim, but not impossible.
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2010
Agreed Gawab, just thought we had 4 billion not 1 billion. No biggy, based on our rate of intellectual growth in the last 100 years I think we will be fine, assuming we don't destroy our selves in the next 100 years.

I mean, humans in our exact present form have only been around for a few tens of thousands of years. Can you imagine what we will be like in a few million years?! Wish I could be here to see it. I think we have a great future if we can pass the tests of self and/or astrologically induced destruction.

GO HUMANS! NUMBER 1!!! Well, maybe number 1.
Gawad
5 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2010
What will happen if you keep adding rocks to a giant earth? I'm sure there is a point where any spherical body with enough mass will start fusion, but has anyone done the calcs for a rocky planet?


As S_H has already pointed out, iron is really bad for fusion, and an Earth like planet would have an iron core. Think of it this way: we're already running around on the end products of a fusion chain from a star that predated the sun. Stellar ash, if you will. It wouldn't be easy to get that to burn. Keep adding more and more stuff and eventually you'd get the equivalent of a cold white dwarf cinder rather than fusion. Oh, and you probably wouldn't want to live there!
Jeffhans1
5 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2010
The only things that might stop us from erupting out of the solar system and colonizing the galaxy are:
Natural Disaster that would wipe out humanity as we know it
Manmade Disasters: Wars, Bioweapons or Skynet type things
Immortality: Believe it or not but if we achieve this and stabilize as a species we will most likely never leave the solar system.
Husky
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
i suppose that in 300 millions years we could have build Dyson spheres, Shkadov stellar engines and other astroengineering stuff to extend our gameplay if we don't screw up by war first
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2010
Jeffhans1:

Assuming humans are here for the time scales we are discussing...

The amount of energy in the solar system in the form of fusable hydrogen and helium is definitely limted.

If icy moons and comets like Europa and Enceladus have not been used up by man before the Sun enters the Red Giant phase, those objects will evaporate, leaving no water and no usable hydrogen.

Extracting hydrogen from the gas giants is at least around 3 or 4 orders of magnitude harder than extracting water-ice from moons and comets.

Once the sun completes the red giant phase the solar system will basicly be uninhabitable with any technology we have even theorized, UNLESS any left-over hydrogen for fusion is extracted from gas giants...although there may still be some icy comets far out in the solar system.
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2010
Keep adding more and more stuff and eventually you'd get the equivalent of a cold white dwarf cinder rather than fusion.

-that's what I was looking for, thanks.
Husky
5 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2010
i wonder what Oliver K Manuels take is on the hypothetical keep adding rocks to rocky super earth, if the iron core cannot fuse like hydrogen does, maybe neutron repulsion can turn it into a star?
thales
not rated yet Sep 28, 2010
i wonder what Oliver K Manuels take is on the hypothetical keep adding rocks to rocky super earth, if the iron core cannot fuse like hydrogen does, maybe neutron repulsion can turn it into a star?


Hey! Speak of the crackpot and he doth appear.
jselin
5 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2010
GO HUMANS! NUMBER 1!!! Well, maybe number 1.


LOL, silly humans you're number 347...
Specieswithoutfusion says what?

:P
CaptBarbados
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
It's a giant comet.
gunslingor1
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
What? lol
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
Addressing my earlier comment. I'm off by a factor of approximately 100. In about 200 million years the solar insolation will turn earth into a desert. My bad on that. Way off.
Gawad
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
Addressing my earlier comment. I'm off by a factor of approximately 100. In about 200 million years the solar insolation will turn earth into a desert. My bad on that. Way off.


Happens to the best of us, S_H. 200 million seems a bit on the low end of it, but hey, a million here, a million there and pretty soon you're talking about some real time.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
Happens to the best of us, S_H. 200 million seems a bit on the low end of it, but hey, a million here, a million there and pretty soon you're talking about some real time.
Yeah, but a factor of 100 is almost ridiculous. I try to be better than that, usually.
Skepticus_Rex
5 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2010
It also depends upon what one reads. There are those who believe that mankind will be gone by five million years or less, based on various estimates of species survivability and so forth.

The Animal Planet not long ago had a show on that gave no more than 5 million years before the earth becomes uninhabitable to humans.

One of the more extreme environmentalists, on the other hand, gives mankind no more than 100 years.

We may be able to add time to the timeline, however, extending it as long as 1.5 billion years more than we have now by doing one of two things within the near future.

1) Sequester nitrogen in a colossal effort to thin the atmosphere. This approach is very difficult and a bit out of our technological reach for the time being.

2) Take the easier approach and double atmospheric CO2 within the next 100 years.

Both of these options can produce thermal effects on the atmosphere that will allow more heat to escape into space as the sun ramps up its fusion.
Gawad
not rated yet Sep 30, 2010
@Skepticus_Rex:

The Sun's output increases a few % over billions of years, so if that 5M yr span was supposed to be related to that in any way it's way off. Also, extreme environmentalists are to be trusted about as much as members of the AGW crowd. And exactly how is boubling atmospheric C02 suppoed to "allow more heat to escape into space"?

In any case, and the following is just pure speculation on my part, but I don't think worrying about humanity on a timescale of millions of years has any imaginable relevence. Humanity in it's present form will almost certainly disapear within the next 1000 years. And I don't think it's going to be because of any kind of catastrophe, but simple because we will chose to become something else. Or a number of other things (some perhaps not so different from what we are now), but no longer properly called Homo sapiens sapiens. Just think of it as the result of fully mature nanotech, genomic control, etc. combined with human imagination and ambition.
Jeremyh
not rated yet Oct 04, 2010
@Skepticus_Rex:

I totally Agree with this...
Most people assume we humans are on an unavoidable course of destruction of the planet and our habitat.

I believe we will repair our habitat as we find newer and better ways to produce our energy and recycle our wast. Sure there will be losses in the Process, certain species have not and more will not survive the transition to the next stage of evolution on planet earth. this is not the first time the earth has changed radically, and species have been lost.
It is also possible that we are on the verge of the next evolutionary explosion.
Jeremyh
not rated yet Oct 04, 2010
@Skepticus_Rex:

As the demise of the dinosaurs gave way to the supremacy of mammals, one could assume that humans will spark a evolution revolution, by creating many different sub-species of plant and animal, as well as some human and some not so human species. many will be associated with requirements for food, energy and products, all will be specifically designed and adapted to various conditions and requirements of our society and supporting systems. All of which will be taking advantage of some technological and / or Biological advantage cooked up by the best and brightest scientists and entrepreneurs our race has to offer.

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