Three Almost Earth-Size Planets Found Orbiting Nearby Star

Three Almost Earth-Size Planets Found Orbiting Nearby Star

Credit: K. Teramura, UH IfA

This whimsical cartoon shows the three newly discovered extrasolar planets (right) casting shadows on their host star that can been seen as eclipses, or transits, at Earth (left). Earth can be detected by the same effect, but only in the plane of Earth's orbit (the ecliptic). During the K2 mission, many of the extrasolar planets discovered by the Kepler telescope will have this lucky double cosmic alignment that would allow for mutual discovery—if there is anyone on those planets to discover Earth. The three new planets orbiting EPIC 201367065 are just out of alignment; while they are visible from Earth, our solar system is tilted just out of their view. High-resolution version.

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Steve Jefferson
Communications Officer
W. M. Keck Observatory

MAUNA KEA, HI – A team of scientists recently discovered a system of three planets, each just larger than Earth, orbiting a nearby star called EPIC 201367065. The three planets are 1.5-2 times the size of Earth. The outermost planet orbits on the edge of the so-called “habitable zone,” where the temperature may be just right for liquid water, believed necessary to support life, on the planet’s surface. The paper, “A Nearby M Star with Three Transiting Super-Earths Discovered by K2,” was submitted to the Astrophysical Journal today and is available here.

“The compositions of these newfound planets are unknown, but, there is a very real possibility the outer planet is rocky like Earth,” said Erik Petigura, a University of California, Berkeley graduate student who spent a year visiting the UH Institute for Astronomy. “If so, this planet could have the right temperature to support liquid water oceans.”

The planets were confirmed by the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii as well as telescopes in California and Chile.

“Keck's contribution to this discovery was vital,” said Andrew Howard, a University of Hawaii astronomer on the team. “The adaptive optics image from NIRC2 showed the star hosting these three planets is a single star, not a binary. It showed that the planets are real and not an artifact of some masquerading multi-star system.”

Due to the competitive state of planet finding, and the fact that time on the twin Keck telescopes are scheduled months in advance, the team asked UC Berkeley Astronomer, Imke de Pater to gather some data during her scheduled run.

“The collegiality of the Keck Observatory community is just wonderful,” Howard said. “Imke took time away from her own science observations to get us images of this system, all on a couple hours’ notice.”

The new discovery paves the way for studies of the atmosphere of a warm planet nearly the size of Earth.

“We’ve learned in the past year that planets the size and temperature of Earth are common in our Milky Way galaxy,” Howard said. “We also discovered some Earth-size planets that appear to be made of the same materials as our Earth, mostly rock and iron.”

The astronomers next hope to determine what elements are in the planets’ atmospheres. If these warm, nearly Earth-size planets have thick, hydrogen-rich atmospheres, there is not much chance for life.

“A thin atmosphere made of nitrogen and oxygen has allowed life to thrive on Earth. But nature is full of surprises. Many extrasolar planets discovered by the Kepler Mission are enveloped by thick, hydrogen-rich atmospheres that are probably incompatible with life as we know it,” said Ian Crossfield, the University of Arizona astronomer who led the study.

The discovery is all the more remarkable because Kepler is now hobbled by the loss of two reaction wheels that kept it pointing at a fixed spot in space. Kepler, launched in 2009, was reborn in 2014 as “K2” with a clever strategy of pointing the telescope in the plane of the Earth’s orbit to stabilize the spacecraft. Kepler is back to mining the cosmos for planets by searching for eclipses, or transits, as planets orbit in front of their host stars and periodically block some of the starlight.

“I was devastated when Kepler was crippled by a hardware failure,” Petigura added. “It’s a testament to the ingenuity of NASA engineers and scientists that Kepler can still do great science.”

Kepler sees only a small fraction of the planetary systems in its gaze, those with orbital planes aligned edge-on to our view from Earth. Planets with large orbital tilts are simply missed by Kepler.

“It’s remarkable that the Kepler telescope is now pointed in the ecliptic, the plane that Earth sweeps out as it orbits the Sun,” Fulton explains. “This means that some of the planets discovered by K2 will have orbits lined up with Earth’s, a celestial coincidence that allows Kepler to see the alien planets, and Kepler-like telescopes in those very planetary systems (if there are any) to discover Earth.”

“Here’s looking at you, looking at me,” said Howard.

In addition to Howard and Petigura, UH graduate students Benjamin Fulton and Kimberly Aller, and UH astronomer Michael Liu were among the two dozen scientists who contributed to the study.

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates the largest, most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrographs and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems.

NIRC2 (the Near-Infrared Camera, second generation) works in combination with the Keck II adaptive optics system to obtain very sharp images at near-infrared wavelengths, achieving spatial resolutions comparable to or better than those achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope at optical wavelengths. NIRC2 is probably best known for helping to provide definitive proof of a central massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Astronomers also use NIRC2 to map surface features of solar system bodies, detect planets orbiting other stars, and study detailed morphology of distant galaxies.

Keck Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.