Maunakea, Hawaiʻi – Astronomers using W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island have discovered one of the lowest-mass planets whose images have been directly captured. Not only were they able to measure its mass, but they were also able to determine that its orbit is similar to the giant planets in our own solar system.
The planet, called AF Lep b, is among the first ever discovered using a technique called astrometry; this method measures the subtle movements of a host star over many years to help astronomers determine whether hard-to-see orbiting companions, including planets, are gravitationally tugging at it.
The study, led by astronomy graduate student Kyle Franson at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), is published in today’s issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“When we processed the observations using the Keck II telescope in real time to carefully remove the glare of the star, the planet immediately popped out and became increasingly apparent the longer we observed,” said Franson.
The direct images Franson’s team captured revealed that AF Lep b is about three times the mass of Jupiter and orbits AF Leporis, a young Sun-like star about 87.5 light-years away. They took a series of deep images of the planet starting in December 2021; two other teams also captured images of the same planet since then.
“This is the first time this method has been used to find a giant planet orbiting a young analog of the Sun,” said Brendan Bowler, an assistant professor of astronomy at UT Austin and senior author on the study. “This opens the door to using this approach as a new tool for exoplanet discovery.”
Despite having a much smaller mass than its host star, an orbiting planet causes a star’s position to wobble slightly around the center of mass of the planetary system. Astrometry uses this shift in a star’s position on the sky relative to other stars to infer the existence of orbiting planets. Franson and Bowler identified the star AF Leporis as one that might harbor a planet, given the way it had moved during 25 years of observations from the Hipparcos and Gaia satellites.
To directly image the planet, the UT Austin team used Keck Observatory’s adaptive optics system, which corrects for fluctuations caused by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere, paired with the Keck II Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera 2 (NIRC2) Vector Vortex Coronagraph, which suppresses light from the host star so the planet could be seen more clearly. AF Lep b is about 10,000 times fainter than its host star and is located about 8 times the Earth-Sun distance.
“Imaging planets is challenging,” Franson said. “We only have about 15 examples, and we think this new ‘dynamically informed’ approach made possible by the Keck II telescope and NIRC2 adaptive optics imaging will be much more efficient compared to blind surveys which have been carried out for the past two decades.”
The two most common ways of finding extrasolar planets involve observing slight, periodic dimming of the starlight if a planet happens to regularly pass in front of the star— like a moth spiraling around a porch light — and measuring minute changes in the frequencies of starlight that result from the planet tugging the star back and forth along the direction to Earth. Both methods tend to work best with large planets orbiting close to their host stars, and both methods are indirect: we don’t see the planet, we only see how it influences the star.
The method of combining direct imaging with astrometry could help astronomers find extrasolar planets that were hard to find before with other methods because they were too far from their host star, were too low mass, or didn’t have orbits that were edge-on as seen from Earth. Another benefit of this technique is that it allows astronomers to directly measure a planet’s mass, which is difficult with other methods at wide orbital distances.
Bowler said the team plans to continue studying AF Lep b.
“This will be an excellent target to further characterize with the James Webb Space Telescope and the next generation of large ground-based telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope,” Bowler said. “We’re already planning more sensitive follow-up efforts at longer wavelengths to study the physical properties and atmospheric chemistry of this planet.”
NASA Keck time is administered by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute. Data presented herein were obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory from telescope time allocated to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration through the agency’s scientific partnership with the California Institute of Technology and the University of California.
ABOUT ADAPTIVE OPTICS
W. M. Keck Observatory is a distinguished leader in the field of adaptive optics (AO), a breakthrough technology that removes the distortions caused by the turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere. Keck Observatory pioneered the astronomical use of both natural guide star (NGS) and laser guide star adaptive optics (LGS AO) and current systems now deliver images three to four times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope at near-infrared wavelengths. AO has imaged the four massive planets orbiting the star HR8799, measured the mass of the giant black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, discovered new supernovae in distant galaxies, and identified the specific stars that were their progenitors. Support for this technology was generously provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation, NASA, NSF, and W. M. Keck Foundation.
The Near-Infrared Camera, second generation (NIRC2) 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.
ABOUT W. M. KECK OBSERVATORY
The W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes are among the most scientifically productive on Earth. The two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes atop Maunakea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometers, and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. Some of the data presented herein were obtained at Keck Observatory, which is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation. The authors wish to recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Maunakea has always had within the Native Hawaiian community. We are most fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.