Extrasolar Planets: A Search to Span Solar Systems

Recently, I have started work as an undergraduate research assistant in the Physics and Astronomy department at my university. The project I was assigned to is of a stellar nature; we are attempting to find evidence of extrasolar planets, or planets around other stars. Though we haven’t found any planets yet, I keep thinking about how crucial this type of work is to the future of the human race. Around 4,000 extrasolar planets have been confirmed by NASA, and it is amazing to think that one of these could be humanity’s next home. In this blog post, I will discuss the major approaches that astronomers use to detect planets outside of our solar system.

The Astrometric Method: Using the astrometric method, we can detect extrasolar planets by carefully monitoring small changes in the host star’s position in the sky. Planets orbit their host stars because of the enormous amount of gravitational force exerted on them by their stars. However, the laws of physics tell us that the planets also exert an equal amount of gravitational force on their host star. Though the star is much more massive, the planets can cause a star to “wobble” as it is gravitationally tugged at. Very few extrasolar planets have been identified using this method; the star studied must be relatively near to us, and observing positional changes may require long periods of observation.

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Doppler Method: Like the astrometric method, the Doppler method relies on the gravitational interactions and “tugs” between a host star and its planets. When a star is moving towards or away from us, we say that its light spectrum is blueshifted or redshifted, respectively. Alternating blueshifts and redshifts relative to average Doppler Shift can indicate a star’s motion or “wobble” due to its interactions with a planet or planets. The Doppler method has discovered many more extrasolar planets than the astrometric method, but it certainly does not come without its limitations. This technique is best suited for massive planets with close orbits, and because it calls for stellar spectra, large telescopes and long periods of observation are a must.

Image Source: EarthSky

The Transit Method: When an extrasolar planet’s orbital plane is situated along our line of sight, the planet will appear to travel in front of its star once every orbit. Astronomers call this a transit event. Similarly, half an orbit later, the planet will become eclipsed by its host star as it passes behind. We can detect these events by monitoring changes in the star system’s brightness. During a transit event, the star undergoes a characteristic dip in brightness as the planet blocks some of its light. During an eclipse, there is a dip in the system’s infrared brightness as the star blocks the infrared light emanating from the planet. Most extrasolar planets have been discovered using this method, but it is only feasible for planets with orbital paths that are oriented in just the right way.

Image Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Direct Detection: This technique involves acquiring images or spectra of the planet. In theory, this is the best way to learn about an extrasolar planet; however, our current technology can only produce images with low resolution. There are other obstacles to directly detecting planets as well. For one, stars give off much more light than any planets that might be orbiting them. Because of diffraction, our telescopes also blur star light. Most extrasolar planets are too close to their bright host stars to be imaged directly from our vantage point, light years away. Second, compared to massive stars and the colossal distances between them, planets are miniscule.

An infrared image of a brown dwarf and an extrasolar planet (bottom left corner) located about 230 light years from Earth. Image Source: Slate

Our Earth, the Spinning Top?

An animation illustrating how the Earth precesses, or “wobbles,” on its axis. This gif was created by me using footage from a Youtube video published by Steven Sanders.

What if I told you that in a couple thousand years from now, your Zodiac sign would no longer be your Zodiac sign? It may be devastating to devout followers of astrology, but the relative positions of the Zodiac constellations are changing very, very slowly, at least from our viewpoint. This is due to a process called precession, the continuous, gradual wobble that changes Earth’s axial orientation in space. The Earth really is like a spinning top – just an extremely slow one. In fact, this top only makes a complete spin every 26,000 years.

Because Earth protrudes at its equator, the planet is not quite a perfect sphere. The equator is also tilted with respect to the ecliptic plane, and as a result, the gravitational attractions of the Sun and the Moon attempt to draw the equatorial bulge into the ecliptic plane. In simpler words, gravity from the Sun and the Moon tries to pull the Earth into straightness. However, because Earth tends to keep rotating, gravity fails to straighten out the Earth and instead causes the axis to precess.

It is not likely that we will see any major changes during our lifetimes, but the night sky will look a lot different thousands of years from now. The North Celestial Pole is pointed toward the star Polaris now, but in 3,000 BC, the North Star was actually Thuban, a star in the constellation Draco. In roughly 12,000 years, Vega, a star in the constellation Lyra, will be the new North Star. Precession also alters the points in Earth’s orbit at which equinoxes and solstices occur; this means that in 13,000 years, the seasons on Earth will have switched times of year.

An animation that illustrates how the North Celestial Pole (NCP) moves in relation to the North Ecliptic Pole (NEP) over a 26,000 year period. This gif was created by me using footage from a Youtube video published by Steven Sanders.