A new classification scheme for exoplanet sizes

September 24, 2018, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
An artist's concept of exoplanets roughly similar to Earth but in a range of sizes. A new study has refined estimates of planetary radii using data from the Gaia mission, and proposes a new classification scheme based on the distribution of planetary sizes. Credit: NASA

There are about 4433 exoplanets in the latest catalogs. Their radii have generally been measured by knowing the radius of their host star and then closely fitting the lightcurves as the planet transits across the face of the star. The radius of the host star is thus a key parameter and latest data release of the Gaia mission has enabled astronomers to improve the accuracy of stellar properties in its catalog very significantly – to a precision in radius of about 8 percent—for nearly one hundred and eight thousand stars in the Kepler exoplanet fields.

CfA astronomer Dimitar Sasselov was part of a team with three colleagues to use the new stellar results to refine the radial measurements of 4268 exoplanets. The large dataset and refined values enable the scientists to confirm some previous hints about the distribution of exoplanet sizes, namely, that the size distribution is not exactly uniform but rather some sizes are less common than might be expected. In particular, there is a paucity of with radii slightly larger than about two Earth-radii, and other slight decreases again at sizes of about four and about ten Earth-radii.

The astronomers use their new database to define a new classification scheme for exoplanets. The smallest category consists of planets smaller than four Earth-radii, and within this group are two subgroups: those smaller than two Earth-radii and those between about two and four Earth-radii. These small planets are generally gas poor. The second category has between four and ten Earth-radii, and the team proposes they be called "transitional planets" since they form a bridge between the small class and the large gas giants. There is a relative paucity of objects in this class for reasons that are not well understood.

The third new grouping contains the , those with sizes larger than about 10 Earth-radii and which are dominated by hydrogen and helium; these include Jupiter analogs, and even brown dwarf stars. The authors conclude by observing that the group of two-to-four Earth-radii planets are the ones most likely to have water- rich cores ("water worlds"). They propose that their results will help refine the list of objects selected for observational follow-ups including potentially habitable worlds.

Explore further: A catalog of habitable zone exoplanets

More information: Li Zeng et al. Survival function analysis of planet size distribution with Gaia Data Release 2 updates, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (2018). DOI: 10.1093/mnras/sty1749

Related Stories

A catalog of habitable zone exoplanets

January 18, 2017

The last two decades have seen an explosion of detections of exoplanets, as the sensitivity to smaller planets has dramatically improved thanks especially to the Kepler mission. These discoveries have found that the frequency ...

Dwarf companion to EPIC 206011496 detected by astronomers

September 20, 2018

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), European astronomers have uncovered the presence of an M-dwarf around the star EPIC 206011496. The newly found object is more than 60 percent less massive than our sun and is bounded ...

A stellar system with three super-Earths

March 2, 2018

Over 3500 extra-solar planets have been confirmed to date. Most of them were discovered using the transit method, and astronomers can combine the transit light curves with velocity wobble observations to determine the planet's ...

The TESS Input Catalog

September 7, 2018

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched on April 18, has as its core mission goal to discover small transiting exoplanets orbiting nearby bright stars, and to do so it will conduct a nearly all-sky photometric ...

HATSouth discovers four 'hot Jupiter' exoplanets

December 27, 2017

An international team of astronomers reports the discovery of four new 'hot Jupiter' extrasolar worlds by the HATSouth survey. The newly found exoplanets received designations HATS-50b through HATS-53b. The finding is presented ...

Recommended for you

Rosetta witnesses birth of baby bow shock around comet

December 12, 2018

A new study reveals that, contrary to first impressions, Rosetta did detect signs of an infant bow shock at the comet it explored for two years – the first ever seen forming anywhere in the solar system.

Periodic radio signal detected from the blazar J1043+2408

December 12, 2018

Using Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), astronomers have detected a periodic signal in the radio light curve of the blazar J1043+2408, which could be helpful in improving our understanding about the nature of blazars ...

The epoch of planet formation, times twenty

December 12, 2018

Astronomers have cataloged nearly 4,000 exoplanets in orbit around distant stars. Though the discovery of these newfound worlds has taught us much, there is still a great deal we do not know about the birth of planets and ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2018
1 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2018
The paper makes some good criticism on earlier statistical work, but then does some of their own, mostly they assume a power law distribution despite that they have only 1-2 order of magnitude data and do no test for it. (And a test would need 2-3 oom data, so cannot be done based on planet radii - maybe if they can add moons, which is fraught with problems too.)

The real take home message to me is that the surveys are now statistically robust (repeatedly find the same distribution).

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.