A Universe Full of Worlds

This week has been great for exoplanet news!

Artist's concept of exoplanet systems. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Ever since the launch of the Kepler space telescope, it seems like extrasolar planet discoveries have been rolling in constantly. But this week at the American Astronomical Society meeting, there were several big announcements.

The first was the discovery of the smallest exoplanetary system yet, containing the smallest planets known. The star in question is a red dwarf, and none of its three (known) planets is larger than the Earth. One of them is about half Earth’s radius – approximately the same size as Mars.

The second announcement was of the discovery of an object orbiting another star that seems to have a vast ring system – larger even than Saturn’s majestic companion rings! Astronomers found the rings when they passed in front of their planet’s star, dimming its light. I think the truly amazing thing about this discovery is not just that our telescopes can detect transits of rings, but that the scientists analyzing this event tracked the variation of sunlight shining through the rings and discovered that these rings, like Saturn’s, have gaps. Gaps in ring systems form when the ring particles get into an orbital resonance with another orbiting body: the second body’s gravitational tugs push the ring particle at just the right frequency to knock it away from that orbital radius, clearing out a gap. Furthermore, computer models indicate that rings around planets are generally unstable – they spread out and disperse. Saturn’s rings, for instance, would not have lasted to be the age that they are – if not for the presence of shepherd moons. My point is this: in order for this extrasolar planet to have rings, especially rings with gaps, it must have moons.

Third, and most exciting in my opinion, there has been a survey of star systems imaged with a gravitational lensing technique, and it concluded that there are more planets in our galaxy than stars. Put another way: on average, every star has at least one planet! Astronomers used to wonder: is the Solar System exceptional in the universe? And, if so, what made it so special? Now, there are more and more indications that planetary systems like ours are not just out there – they’re downright common!

The thing that makes exoplanet research so fascinating to me is the sheer variety of worlds discovered. There are so many stars out there, and so many planets, that it seems almost harder to imagine a world that can’t happen than a world that might. And some of the newly discovered worlds might give George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry a run for their money! Nothing drove this point home to me more than an astronomy lecture I attended a few years ago, in grad school: the speaker talked about M dwarf stars, and how the “habitable zone”* of some of those stars would be at such small orbital radius that a planet in that zone would be tidally locked – orbiting once per day, always pointing one hemisphere towards the star. But, continued the speaker, we have discovered exoplanet orbits with rather high eccentricity – and those worlds would “rock” back and forth around their tidal equilibrium. On those worlds, you could stand on a beach and watch the sun rise over the ocean…then, a few hours later, the sun would reach its zenith, turn around, and sink right back down to set at the same point on the horizon!

Then, a few weeks later, I heard another speaker talking about Gliese 581g – alias “Zarmina” – shortly after its (potential) discovery. This planet, if it truly exists, lies smack-dam in that habitable zone* but would be locked to its star, so one hemisphere is always day and one is always dark. Naturally, many sci-fi fans attached themselves to the idea that only the strip of land near the terminator would be habitable. (io9 even posted a bunch of whimsical concept art from the hypothetical Zarmina Minitry of Tourism.) But in this lecture, I learned that the climate on such a world would likely make it even stranger – rather than being habitable in a twilight band circling the globe, the world would be encased in ice with a liquid sea directly beneath its sun: the astronomer called this “eyeball” Earth. What strange and intriguing cultures might arise on such a world?

And that’s not all. There are more known exoplanets orbiting binary stars, for instance. And some more space missions designed to hunt for – or investigate existing – exoplanets are advancing through the design process. Who knows what we will find in the future?

Chances are, if you can imagine it arising from the physics we know, it does exist out there. Now the questions become: how can we explore these places? And how many other explorers are out there, looking back at us?

* I find the term “habitable zone” bothersome, because we have coined the term based on a single data point. However, the alternative “liquid-water zone” is misleading, because we know that there is liquid water in our outer Solar System. (Heck, Europa may even be habitable, we don’t know!) But “liquid-surface-water zone,” which is what astronomers really mean by this term, is just awkward.

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