Tag Archive | Exoplanets

Planet Hunters TESS

Welcome to our new Planet Hunters TESS project!

TESS is NASA’s new Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will spend the next two years looking for distant alien worlds. The first batch of data has only just been released by NASA and we are ready to find planets around other stars in our Galaxy. Will you join the search?

We are proudly following in the footsteps of the tremendously successful Planet Hunters project. You may have heard of this project, or even contributed to some of its amazing discoveries. Over the course of eight years they found over two-thousand planet candidates, including planetary systems that we didn’t even think possible!

The original Planet Hunters project used data from the Kepler mission, which came to an end earlier this year. But with the end of Kepler comes the beginning of TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and with that an exciting new project: Planet Hunters TESS. Throughout the mission, TESS will point its four cameras at two-hundred-thousand bright nearby stars, four-hundred times more than Kepler observed throughout its lifetime. These TESS target stars will be closer and brighter than the Kepler targets, which will allow us to more easily observe planet candidates using Earth-based telescopes. The discovery of many more worlds will further our knowledge of planet formation and evolution, and will allow us to better understand the galaxy in which we live.

But we can’t find them alone! We’ll be hunting for planets by monitoring the light given off by a star. When an planet passes, or “transits”, in front of its host star, the star momentarily dims and we see a dip in the light. This method of detecting planets has already proven to be extremely effective! Even though we can train machines to find some planets, studies have shown that human brains are excellent at detecting patterns and finding planets that automated routines miss. Together we can find the most complex, unusual and exciting planetary systems.

We’re the new Planet Hunters TESS core science team, and we’re very excited to have you join our hunt for distant worlds at www.planethunters.org.

We hope you enjoy the project!

Nora & the Planet Hunters TESS team


Hot Friends of Hot Jupiters: The WASP-47 system

Ever since a mechanical failure caused the end of the original Kepler mission in 2013, the Kepler spacecraft has been conducting a survey of new stars, searching for planets across the ecliptic plane in its new K2 mission (https://blog.planethunters.org/2014/12/12/more-about-the-k2-campaign-0/). The K2 dataset is a goldmine of fascinating science results. One such result is the recent discovery of two new planets in the WASP-47 system.

Until a few months ago, everyone knew that hot Jupiter planets don’t have “friends”, or nearby small planets in close orbits to the host star. These other planets had been searched for extensively, through radial velocity measurements, analysis of the transit times of the hot Jupiters, and even through transits by Kepler during its original mission. All of these searches turned up nothing.

This all changed one day last July, when Hans Martin Schwengeler, a Planet Hunter who enjoys poring over Kepler and K2 data searching for new transiting planets by eye, came across the telltale signatures of two extra transiting planets in the hot Jupiter system WASP-47. WASP 47b was, by all indications, a perfectly normal hot Jupiter — in the discovery paper, Coel Hellier wrote “With an orbital period of 4.16 days, a mass of 1.14 Jupiter masses, and a radius of 1.15 Jupiter radii, WASP-47b is an entirely typical hot Jupiter”. The discovery of additional transiting planets dramatically changed the narrative.

When Hans came across the planets, he posted them to the Planet Hunters forum, where he and other citizen scientists discuss their findings. Andrew Vanderburg came across the post suggesting that a known hot Jupiter had planetary companions. Using his K2 data reduction pipeline (https://blog.planethunters.org/2015/01/08/a-recipe-for-making-a-k2-light-curve/), he analyzed the light curve and confirmed Hans’s discovery – there were additional planets in the system, a super-Earth at a 0.8 day period and a Neptune at a 9 day period!

Andrew emailed me, and at first I hardly believed that the lightcurve was real. How could a hot Jupiter have close-in planetary companions? I knew people had been looking for this type of companion for years via both photometry and transit timing variations, but the lack of discoveries indicated that they might not exist. I performed some numerical stability simulations (because it seemed at first like this system could not be dynamically stable!) and sure enough, the N-body simulations showed that the system was likely stable on timescales of 10 million years.

At that point, we formed a team with Hans, Andrew, MIT Professor Saul Rappaport, University of Michigan Professor Fred Adams (my advisor!), and me. Once this team was formed, we devoted ourselves to understanding as much about the systems as we could. Some work by Saul and Andrew confirmed that the planets were all orbiting the same star, Andrew fit the lightcurve to get the planet properties, and I ran more stability simulations. Soon enough, Fred suggested that I look at what transit timing variations (or TTVs, which happen when transits come late or early because of the gravity of other planets in the system) we would theoretically expect to see from the system – and I found that for the outer two planets, the TTVs should be observable.

I then measured the TTVs from the lightcurve, and sure enough – there was something there. After some discussion, we realized we could measure the masses of the planets from those TTVs! Though I had never done dynamical fits before, I wrote the code to utilize Kat Deck’s TTVFAST code in a Markov Chain Monte Carlo fit. With some advice from Kat and help from Fred, I eventually got the fits working and we were able to measure or put limits on the masses of each planet.

In a little less than two weeks, we had put together a paper deriving planet properties from the lightcurve, mass limits from the TTVs, and showing that you CAN detect companions to hot Jupiters using TTVs!

This result is exciting because it is the very first time a hot Jupiter has been found to have such close-in other planets. Before this discovery, it was unclear if hot Jupiter could have nearby friends, as they might destabilize the friends’ orbits during migration. This discovery opens up new questions about how these systems form – it is possible that there is more than one migration mechanism for hot Jupiters.

The paper on WASP-47 and its new companions, which was published earlier this week in ApJ Letters and is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1508.02411, was a collaboration between myself (Juliette Becker, a graduate student at the University of Michigan), graduate student Andrew Vanderburg (Harvard CfA), Professor Fred Adams (the University of Michigan), Professor Saul Rappaport (MIT), and Hans Schwengeler (a citizen scientist).


Comets or Aliens?

Let’s deal with the big question first. Has Planet Hunters discovered aliens?

The answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that all of the press who have written about us in the last 48 hours, sending a flood of volunteers to the site, are completely misguided. Let me backtrack…

A few weeks ago we submitted the ninth planet hunters paper to the journal, and that paper is now available on the arXiv service. Led by Tabetha Boyajian at Yale, it describes a rather unusual system (what the Atlantic called the most interesting star in the Galaxy), which was identified by Planet Hunters, four of whom (Daryll, Kian, Abe, Sam) are named on the paper*. They spotted a series of transits – which is normally what signifies the presence of a planet – but these were unusual.

The star’s light dimmed for a long period of time, loosing a fifth of its brightness for days or even months at a time. More mysteriously, the duration of the dips was not always the same, so this couldn’t possibly be a planet. This behaviour is unique amongst the more than a hundred thousand stars studied by Kepler – we have a bone fide mystery on our hands.I think the team’s immediate thoughts were that it must be the star itself that’s misbehaving, but stars aren’t known to behave like this and some careful follow up reveals it to be nothing more than a normal F-type star, slightly hotter and more massive than the Sun. So it’s not the star, and we’re sure too that it’s not Kepler itself misbehaving; something is really blocking the light from this star.One option is a disk of dust around the star. It’s from such disks that planets form (see DiskDetectives.org for more on this!) and so that wouldn’t be too surprising. Yet enough dust to cause the deep eclipses we see would glow brightly in the infrared, and there’s no sign of a strong infrared source around this star.

You can read the paper to find out what else we considered, but we think the best explanation is that there is a group of exocomets in orbit around the star. Comets are an appealing scenario to invoke because they would be faint in the infrared, and because they move on elliptical orbits, accounting for the random timing of the transits and their different lengths. Such a group of comets could have come from the breakup of a larger object, leaving a cloud of smaller remnants in similar orbits behind.

Much detailed work is needed to flesh out the details of this (pleasingly outlandish!) scenario. One possibility is that the recent passage of a nearby star triggered the cometary bombardment whose effects we’re seeing. The paper is currently in the peer review process and there is – of course – the possibility that there is a perfectly sensible solution we haven’t yet considered. However, so  far over 100 professional scientists have had a look at the lightcurves and not managed to come up with a working solution.

One other proposed theory is that this pattern of behaviour is due to a fleet of alien spaceships in orbit around a star, a possibility considered by Jason Wright and collaborators here. Jason and co were tipped off about our discovery by the team, and it’s included in their paper as an object with ‘a bizarre light curve consistent with a “swarm” of megastructures’, much to the excitement of much of the internet. ‘Consistent with’ isn’t the same as ‘definitely is’, of course – and personally, my money is very firmly on the comet theory with a side bet on weird stellar behaviour – but until those models are properly investigated alien spaceships remain a possibility. The Wright paper points out this star is now a supremely interesting target for SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and we agree – I hope radio astronomers will go and listen for signals. We need more observations of transits in action, too, and will be trying to follow-up to try and work out what’s actually going on.In the meantime, who knows what else is lurking in the Kepler data? Planet Hunters is about finding planets, but this ability to identify the weird and unusual is one of the project’s great advantages. Get clicking at www.planethunters.org, and let us know through Talk if you find anything a little odd.


* – This isn’t the final version of the paper, and we have more names to mention too before we’re done.

Kepler 2.0

It’s up!

The first science data from the new Kepler K2 mission is up on Planet Hunters just waiting to be looked at for new planets, eclipsing binaries, and whatever else lies in the data. This is a set of completely new stars! (Check out the K2 page for more information about the K2 mission.)

This data may go fast, so get classifying now! But don’t worry, there will be more K2 data when the next quarter is released. And when each K2 quarter is finished, keep classifying stars from the four-year Kepler mission to help solve one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy: how common are planets?

– Joey

The Role of Planetary Migration in the Evolution of the Solar System

In the past two decades, exoplanet hunters have discovered almost 1800 planets beyond the Solar System, and there is more than twice that number of potential candidates still awaiting further confirmation. Of the known alien systems, astronomers have found a substantial number of planets travel around their parent stars in truly unusual orbits, unexplainable by any planetary formation mechanism.

The list of peculiar cases includes bodies that travel along completely different orbital planes to one another, worlds that take millennia to complete an orbit, and those that possess extreme comet-like eccentricities. Even more extreme are the rogue planets out there that orbit no star, presumably having been ejected from their solar systems altogether. However, the most inexplicable bodies are hot Jupiters, which orbit their parent stars in a matter of hours to days at a fraction of the distance that Mercury lies from the Sun. At such close proximity to the star, temperatures would simply be too high for a massive planet to retain its gaseous envelope during formation.

If these bodies cannot have formed at their current locations this may mean that planetary orbits are subject to dramatic change throughout the evolution of a system; meaning that where we observe a body now may not be where it formed, or where it will eventually end up. This reordering is referred to by scientists as planetary migration.


Artist impression of an accretion disk. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There are three ways in which planetary migration is understood to occur: the first describes a gas driven process in which the planetary disk effectively pushes or pulls the planet to a new position; the second arises as a result of gravitational interactions between neighbouring bodies, where a large object can scatter a smaller one and thereby create an equal and opposite resulting force back onto itself; and the third is due to another gravitational effect, tidal forces, which mainly occur between the star and the planet and tend to result in more circular orbits.

Surprising as it may seem to some, it is widely accepted that planetary migration has shaped and influenced the architecture of the Solar System quite dramatically. In fact, its dynamic past actually explains the existence and properties of several Solar System entities, and shows that our planetary system might not be as unique as once thought. So how have the planets moved since their birth?

It all began with the inward migration of the largest planet in the Solar System, Jupiter. The gas giant, weighing more than all the other planets combined, is believed to have travelled right up to the orbit of Mars, 1.5 AU from the Sun, before travelling back out to its present location almost four times as far. Luckily for Mars this occurred some 600 million years into the birth of the Solar System (around 4 billion years ago) before any of the terrestrial planets had formed and only four gas giants ruled the skies. At this time, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune possessed much more compact orbits and were surrounded by a dense disk of small icy objects.

Artist impression of planetary system. Image credit: Dana Berry

Artist impression of planetary system. Image credit: Dana Berry, Harold Levison, Dan Durda, SwRI.

Jupiter was drawn towards the Sun by the first type of planetary migration, gas driven, whose effects work differently depending on the mass of the planet. For low-mass planets, like the Earth, the mechanism occurs when the planet’s orbit perturbs the surrounding gas or planetesimal disk driving spiral density waves into it. An imbalance can occur between the strength of the interaction with the spirals inside and outside the planet’s orbit, causing the planet to gain or lose angular momentum. If angular momentum is lost the planet migrates inwards, and if it is gained it travels outwards. This is known as Type I migration and occurs on a short timescale relative to the lifetime of the accretion disk.

In the case of high mass planets, like Jupiter, their strong gravitational pull clears a sizeable gap in the disk which ends Type I migration and allows Type II to take over. Here the material enters the gap and in turn moves the planet and gap inwards over the accretion timescale of the disk. This migration mechanism is thought to explain why hot Jupiters are found in such close proximity to their stars in other planetary systems. The third type of gas driven migration is sometimes referred to as runaway migration, where large-scale vortices in the disk rapidly draw the planet in towards the star in a few tens of orbits.

The three types of disk migration. Image credit: Frédéric Masse.

The three types of disk migration. Image credit: Frédéric Masse.

The best understanding of how the planets have moved in throughout our system’s evolution arose from the Nice Model, proposed by an international collaboration of scientists in 2005. This model suggests that at the inner edge of the icy disk, some 35 AU from the Sun, the outermost planet began interacting with icy planetesimals, influencing the second sort of migration to occur: gravitational scattering. Comets were slingshotted from one planet to the next, which gradually caused Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and the belt to migrate outwards. Jupiter’s powerful gravity flung the icy objects that reached it into highly elliptical orbits or out of the Solar System entirely, which in order to conserve angular momentum, further propelled its journey inwards.

An extension to this theory is the ‘Grand Tack model‘, which is named after the unusual course of Jupiter’s migration towards the Sun before stopping and migrating outwards again, like a sailboat tacking about a buoy. At the distance that Mars would later coalesce, material had been swept away due to Jupiter’s presence. This resulted in the stunted growth of Mars and a material-rich region from which the Earth and Venus formed, explaining their respective sizes. The gas giant’s travels also prevented the rocky material in the asteroid belt from accreting into larger bodies due to its strong gravitational influence. Although Jupiter swapped positions with the asteroid belt twice the movements were so slow that collisions were minimal, resulting in more of a gentle displacement.


The Nice Model, Gomes et al. 2005.

But why did Jupiter’s migration to the Sun’s fiery depths cease? For that it has Saturn to thank. As the two planets moved further away from each other, it was believed they became temporarily locked in a 2:1 orbital resonance. That meant that for every orbit of the Sun Saturn made, Jupiter made two. The Nice Model showed that the planetary coupling increased their orbital eccentricities and rapidly destabilised the entire system. Jupiter forced Saturn outwards, pushing Neptune and Uranus into extremely elliptical orbits where they gravitationally scattered the dense icy disk far into the inner and outer Solar System. This disruption in turn scattered almost the entire primordial disk. Some models also show Neptune to have been propelled past Uranus to become the farthest planet from the Sun as we now know it. Over time the orbits of the outermost planets settled back into the near circular paths we observe today.

The Nice Model explains the present day absence of a dense trans-Neptunian population and the positions of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. It also accounts for the mixture of icy and rocky objects in the asteroid belt, like water-rich dwarf planet, Ceres, which likely originated from the icy belt. The rapid scattering of icy objects, around 4 billion years ago, dates with the onset of the late heavy bombardment period, which is predominantly recorded from the Moon’s well-preserved surface.

However, there are problems with the original Nice Model, where some simulations found that the gradual 2:1 resonant coupling of Jupiter and Saturn would have resulted in an extremely unstable inner Solar System from which Mars would have been ejected. Later research has since resulted in the ‘Nice 2 Model‘, which in part suggests that the gradual scattering of planetesimals caused the two gas giants to fall into a 3:2 orbital resonance (not the originally proposed 2:1), allowing for the Nice Model to work with a stable inner Solar System.


Artist impression of the dispersed belt. Image credit: JHUAPL/SwRI

The final mechanism for planetary migration occurs through tidal interactions between different celestial bodies. Unlike gas driven migration and gravitational scattering, tidal forces act over a much longer timescale of billions of years. The process begins due to the Kozai mechanism, which is suggested to pump eccentricity into a planet’s orbit. As the tidal forces correct this effect by re-circularising its orbit the planet moves closer in. Whilst the orbits of the terrestrial planets are thought to have remained fairly stable throughout the evolution of the Solar System, this gradual process is likely to have slightly altered their paths and will remain to do so.

The knowledge of how our own planetary system evolved has helped answer many questions about unusual exoplanet orbits, but there is still a lot left to uncover. One such question asks why we observe so many hot Jupiters unfathomably close to their star, as without another large body’s influence, should it not eventually be swallowed up? Perhaps planet-disk interactions decouple at such close proximities to the star and tidal forces prevail, or perhaps we are capturing a snapshot in time just before the planet meets its fate. For now only time, further observations and, most importantly, more exoplanet discoveries will tell!

Quiet Stars (examples)

Thanks very much for your help with this project. At last count, roughly 50,000 light curves had been sorted at planethunters.org. Many of you have requested more examples about how to classify stellar variability, so we’ll start with the easiest case.  All of the light curves below are examples of quiet stars.  Random variations in brightness occur because of photon noise (similar to shot noise in electronics). The number of photons that are collected are small enough that there random fluctuations that have nothing to do with the actual brightness of the star. Photon noise (or Poisson noise) produces scatter, but the data remain in a nearly featureless band of points.



If you look closely at the light curve data for these quiet stars, you will see light gray error bars associated with each data point.  In any physical measurement, the error bar simply captures our ignorance about the true value of the measurement. In the Kepler light curves, the brightness is represented as a discrete dot, however, any and all points along an error bar are equally correct values for that particular brightness measurement.

In the quiet light curves above, should any of those low points be flagged as possible transits?  Probably not.  A deviant point or two can still just be noise. A true transit event should have a series of low brightness points that last for the time it takes the planet to cross in front of its stars (i.e., a few to several hours, represented by a few to several data points).  Low dips that repeat are also good indicators of a transit, however some of the most exciting transits (from planets in wider, more habitable orbits) will only occur once per month (for example, a true analog of our Earth would just transit once per year).

The quiet light curves above may seem like duds, but they are an extremely important aspect of research for this project. Stars that do not vary in brightness are particularly important objects for exoplanet searches with other techniques.  The work that you’re doing will feed into our understanding for the next generation instruments and space missions that could be built to detect planets.

Happy Holidays to All!  Debra Fischer

Planet Hunters Introduction


Hi, I’m Meg Schwamb a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University and member of the Planet Hunters Team. Welcome to Planet Hunters! We’ve been working hard, and we are excited to finally show you the finished product!

In the last decade, we have seen an explosion in the number of known planets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system. With ground based transit searches, stellar radial-velocity observations, and microlensing detections, over 500 extrasolar planets (exoplanets) have been discovered to date. Studying the physical and dynamical properties of each of these new worlds has revolutionized our understanding of planetary formation and the evolution of planetary systems. But we have just barely scratched the surface in understanding the diversity of planetary systems and planet formation pathways.The current inventory of known exoplanets has been limited to mostly Jupiter-sized or larger gas-rich planets, most orbiting extremely close to their parent stars. The current inventory of known exoplanets has been limited to mostly Jupiter-sized or larger gas-rich planets, most orbiting extremely close to their parent stars. While these planets have provided great insight into the formation of giant planets, beyond Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, in our own solar system, little is known about the formation and prevalence of rocky terrestrial planets in the universe.

Finding Earth-size planets is a difficult task because the transit-signals, the dimming of the star’s light caused be a planet moving in front of the star, are so shallow. For a Jupiter-size planet, the transit depth is ~1% of the star’s brightness. For an Earth-size planet transiting a Sun-like star the decrease in brightness is less than .001%. Ground-based surveys have not reached the sensitivity to detect such planets around stars similar to our Sun, but with NASA’s space-based Kepler mission, launched in March 2009, astronomers are primed to start a new era in the study of exoplanets. Even with the exceptional data from the Kepler telescope, finding these Earth-sized planets will be extremely difficult, but in the age of Kepler, the first rocky planets will likely be detected including the potential to find Earth-like planets residing in the habitable zone, warm enough to harbor liquid water and potentially life on their surfaces.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is one of the most powerful tools in the hunt for extrasolar planets. The Kepler data set is unprecedented, both in observing cadence and in the photometric precision. Before Kepler, the only star monitored this precisely was our own Sun. The lightcurves reveal subtle variability that has never before been documented. The Kepler data set is a unique reservoir waiting to be tapped. Kepler lightcurves are now publicly available with the first data release this past June and the next release scheduled for February 2011.

The Kepler Team computers are sifting through the data, but we at Planet Hunters are betting that there will be transit signals which can only be found via the remarkable human ability for pattern recognition. Computers are only good at finding what they’ve been taught to look for. Whereas the human brain has the uncanny ability to recognize patterns and immediately pick out what is strange or unique, far beyond what we can teach machines to do. With Planet Hunters we are looking for the needle in the haystack, and ask you to help us search for planets.

This is a gamble, a bet, if you will, on the ability of humans to beat machines just occasionally. It may be that no new planets are found or that computers have the job down to a fine art. That’s ok. For science to progress sometimes we have to do experiments, and although it may not seem like it at the time negative results are as valuable as positive ones. Most of the lightcurves will be flat devoid of transit signals but yet, it’s just possible that you might be the first to know that a star somewhere out there in the Milky Way has a companion, just as our Sun does.

Fancy giving it a try?