Big projects to unveil the birth, life, and death of a Pale Red Dot

By Jorge Lillo Box, European Southern Observatory (ESO)

Like a person, planets are born, evolve rapidly in the early stages of their lives, and spend most of their time interacting with others in their surroundings (in this case stars, other planets, comets, asteroids, etc.). At last, they die in a joint evolution with the system where they lived. The large crop of extrasolar planets discovered to date (around two thousand) is providing valuable information about how exactly these processes take place. But there are still many open questions that are key to understanding the whole picture. Starting from a planet’s birth and finishing with its death, I will briefly review some big projects and facilities aimed at answering these crucial questions.

Planets are byproducts of stellar formation. Stars are formed after the collapse of a molecular cloud. The result of this process is a massive object (the star) surrounded by a circumstellar disc composed of gas and dust. This disc is indeed the incubator where planets will be formed. However, the exact mechanism of planet formation is still a mystery, with different theories trying to explain the process and to conjugate theory and the observations. A property that seems to have a key role in planet formation is the amount of gas and its lifetime in the disc. Also, the amount of warm water, and in general the chemical contents available in the disc will determine the type of planets that can be formed. Two key projects using data from the Herschel mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) aim at characterizing these parameters in the different stages of planet formation: GASPS and DUNES. They are producing impressive results with the detection of warm water vapor in these protoplanetary discs, a crucial ingredient linked with planet formation and the development of life. Additionally, the observations carried out by the ALMA radio-interferometer (Chile) are shedding light on the formation process, detecting protoplanets in the first stages of their live as well as possible signatures of multi-planetary formation.

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disk around HL Tauri. The image shows clear dark rings that could be due to the presence of forming planets, although other theories (not involving planets) have also been proposed to explain them. Credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).

During the process of forming a planet within a protoplanetary disc, other minor objects are also created. Moons, comets, asteroids, and minor planets are also by-products of this process and could play a key role in the subsequent evolution of the planetary system, as well as being crucial for the development and support of life. For example, we know that tidal forces induced by the Moon on our Earth have an important role in transporting heat from the equator to the poles, contributing to the climate patterns of our planet. Similarly, in other extrasolar systems, these objects may exist and play similar or even more important roles. Additionally, the properties of their orbits (inclinations, eccentricities, etc.) are a direct consequence of the dynamical evolution of the system during its first stages. Hence, the detection of minor bodies in extrasolar systems will contribute to our knowledge on planet formation and evolution, and potentially the evolution of life. The HET and TROY projects aim at detecting these minor objects. First, the HET project has the challenging goal of detecting the first exomoons—natural satellites orbiting around known planets. They have obtained different candidates, although no confirmation has been published as for today. The TROY project aims at detecting exotrojan planets—bodies co-orbiting with known extrasolar planets in the stability points of their orbit. In the Solar System, we know that a cloud of trojans inhabits the Lagrangian points L4 and L5 of Jupiter’s orbit. Indeed, even our Earth has a long-term 300-meter diameter object co-orbiting with us.

Illustration of the minor bodies in the inner part of the Solar System, including Jupiter trojans and the main asteroid belt. These objects are byproducts of planet formation and have key information about that process. Detecting them in extrasolar systems may help us to understand the early evolution of planetary systems. Credits: NASA (Creative Commons).

On the other side, important space missions are discovering large amounts of exoplanets with which we can start doing statistics of planet populations. For instance, thanks to NASA’s Kepler mission, we now know that solar-like stars in our Galaxy harbor on average 0.77 earth-size planets. This is a crucial discovery since it tells us that earths are more or less commonly formed in the Universe. In the forthcoming years, new space missions such as TESS, CHEOPS, PLATO, Gaia, or JWST will each contribute to improve these numbers by detecting, and characterizing, extrasolar systems in other niches (for example, long-period planets).

The end of the story, as it happens in our own lives, is tragic. After several billion years, the host star exhausts its internal fuel (hydrogen) and starts to contract, while the external layers expand, making the star several times bigger than it was during its adult phase—becoming a red giant. The consequence of this process for the surrounding planets can be traumatic and catastrophic, possibly being engulfed by the star after a spiraling in-fall. But some of them can still survive. Determining the conditions for a planet to be engulfed by its host star is still a matter of debate. It is important to note that this process will also take place in our Solar System (although in several billion years). Hence, it is crucial to understand how planets die, and under which conditions, to know the future and the expiration date of our Earth. Several projects like EXPRESS, TAPAS or JOTA are currently looking for planets orbiting giant stars in order to contrast the theoretical predictions with actual data to shed light on the end of planetary systems.

An artist’s impression of HD 189733 b showing rapid evaporation of the atmosphere. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (Creative Commons license).

A great technological and scientific effort is being put in to the study of all these processes. Understanding how planets are formed, evolve, and interact with other bodies in the system along their lives and finally finish their lives, is crucial to understanding our own world. The Pale Red Dot project is contributing to this by trying to detect the closest planetary system that we can find, a cousin of our own Solar System. Who knows what surprises this work will  bring? Just a few months left to get the answer…

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Dr. Jorge Lillo-Box

About the author.

Dr. Jorge Lillo-Box is a fellow at the European Southern Observatory (Santiago de Chile). Jorge studied Physics at the Complutense University and University of La Laguna. Afterwards he moved to the Astrobiology Center (INTA-CSIC, Madrid) where he got his PhD in 2015. Since last year he is settled in Chile where, if he is not pointing to a star at the Paranal Observatory, he would be delving into the study of the evolution of planetary systems in the last stages of their lives and in the detection of minor bodies through the TROY project. Among the several planets he has discovered in different niches, we highlight the first planet transiting a giant star or the closest planet to a host star ascending the Red Giant Branch, Kepler-91b.

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