Question: If an earth-like planet was discovered by a large US observatory that virtually guaranteed the capability of supporting life, would it be announced to the public straight away? Or would/could the government intervene and likely suppress news of the discovery for some reason? How would other nations observatories and governments likely react if they made such a find? — Bruce
Answer: I cannot think of any reason why such a discovery would be kept secret. Such a discovery would likely spur an increase in measurements of this newly-discovered planet, which would likely encourage governments to increase their investments in the science associated with the study of this planet.
Question: Someone asked “How many planets a stellar-planetary system can accommodate safely into a stable orbit around that star? What are the factors it depends on?” What I’m asking is what is the largest number of planets have been observed orbiting a star? I understand it’s in principal a nearly infinite number “could” orbit a star. What is the solar system with the most known planets? Thank you. — Michael
Answer: Looking at the NASA Exoplanet Database, it appears to me that the current confirmed extrasolar planetary system with the most planets orbiting a single star is KOI-351 with seven planets. Of course, our solar system is the champ with 8 planets and a host of dwarf planets if you want to count all stars with planets.
Question: I’m interested in Kapteyn’s Star. July 2014 popular news reports about the discovery of Kapteyn b & c mentioned an age for the system of 11.5 GY. However, the EU exoplanet database lists an age of 8 GY. (For some reason, it also lists a few stars with ages older than 13.8 GY.) Can you provide a definitive age? Kotoneva’s quite thorough 2005 study of the star did not provide an age; the authors did use a 10 GY estimate for temperature purposes. My guess is that the EU had an old list of stellar characteristics, and when someone finds a planet, they tack the new planet info onto the old star info. Did something happen to change the dating of Kapteyn? Thanks for your help. — Andrew
Answer: I am not sure what database the “EU exoplanet database” is, but I have reviewed a recent analysis by Anglada-Escude etal. (2014) which includes a nice description of the limitations associated with determining the age of Kapteyn’s Star. Anglada-Escude etal. (2014) list the age as greater than 10.0 GY, but less than 13.8 GY (the upper limit set by the current value for the age of the universe). I believe that this is the best current estimate for the age of Kapteyn’s Star.
Question: If VY Canis Majoris has a Solar System, would the planets be star-sized and the moons planet sized? — Monte
Answer: With a mass of about 30 times that of our Sun, VY Canis Majoris is one of the largest stars known. The size of a star, though, does not necessarily correlate with the size of the planets that might form around that star. It is equally possible to find small planets orbiting large stars as it is to find large planets orbiting small stars.
Question: Looking at data on exoplanets, I’ve noticed a few with what seem like incredibly short projected orbital periods; single digit numbers of days per orbit.
This would seem to put these planets travelling through space at incredible velocity relative to the speed of light, at least compared to anything else in our experience.
What effects would this have, if any, on the planet – from a general relativity point of view. Would time dilation be measurable to an outside observer surveying one of these planets from up close (say, 3 or 4 AU)? — Timothy
Answer: In fact, exoplanets travel just somewhat faster than a rocket. An average velocity for a rocket is something like 30000 feet per second, or about 10,000 meters per second. The velocity of an exoplanet with an orbital semimajor axis of about 0.1 AU and an orbital period of about 10 days is about 100,000 meters per second, or about 10 times that of the rocket. Finally, the speed of light is about 300,000,000 meters per second, or about 1000 times the speed of the exoplanet. Therefore, the space velocities of exoplanets do not appear to be fast enough to experience general relativistic effects.
Question: On the occasion of discovering the first earth-sized planet that could possibly support liquid water, what value would you assign to the Drake equation variable ne (the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets)? — Richard
Answer: In fact, a recent study using the Kepler telescope estimated that 22% of Sun-like stars contain Earth-sized planets orbiting their stars in their habitable zone. This results in an estimate of about 20 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy. So, I guess that would mean that ne in the Drake Equation would be 0.22. Note, though, that this is just one study. As additional Kepler measurements are analyzed I expect this estimate to be improved.
Question: Hi! My name is Natasha and I live in New Jersey and am 17 years old. I am currently a Senior in high school and I’m planning on pursuing Astronomy and Physics in my future. Currently, I am in a Journalism class and I am writing a feature article on the existence of extraterrestrial life. I 100% believe in life other than ours, but I need an expert’s support in my stance. What blatant proof is there that life other than ours exists and any statistics of any kind are appreciated as well! Thank you so much for your time! — Natasha
Answer: Well, the fact is that there is no evidence for the existence of living organisms such as those we find here on Earth on any other planet. As you probably know, there have been many attempts to detect the signatures of life beyond Earth, all of which have resulted in what we call a “non-detection”. These searches continue, though, through such measurements as studies of the properties of extrasolar planet, or “exoplanet”, atmospheres. These exoplanetary atmosphere studies are attempting to detect the signatures of life, otherwise known as “biosignatures”.
Question: How many planets a stellar-planetary system can accommodate safely into a stable orbit around that star? What are the factors it depends on?
For Example: Currently our solar system has 8 planets in a stable orbit. I want to know the maximum possible number of planets our system can accommodate so that added planets(beyond the orbit of Neptune) also follow the orbital pattern of 8 existing planets?
Suppose all the planets in our solar system are exact replica like Earth, then how many earth-like planets that our current sun can get hold off? — Vinod
Answer: With no other constraints on the star or the planets that orbit the star, the only requirement for stable orbits of planets around the star is that the total mass of the planets be less than the mass of the star. Therefore, one could in principal have a nearly infinite number of very small planets that orbit a star. In reality there are other constraints, such as merging of small planets that are near each other in the early phases of the formation of a planetary system, that reduces the final configuration of a planetary system. These additional constraints, though, conspire in a complex way to produce the final orbital configuration for an exoplanetary system.
Question: I am a retired PhD chemist..interested in amateur astronomy. Recently a lot of exo planets have been discovered using a “transit” method of observing brightening and dimming of stars. How do we know these are planet transits, and not the stellar equivalent of sun spots???? — T. Engle
Answer: Let me first point you to a very nice description of the techniques used to detect extrasolar planets (called “exoplanets”) by my colleagues at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado. There is also a very nice description of the transit method for exoplanet detection from the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) network. As you pointed out, one of the methods used to detect exoplanets uses measurements of the dimming of a star’s light as a planet transits across the face of the star. Stars also have “spots”, much like those found on our Sun (“sunspots”), which are cooler dark spots that could conceivably be mistaken for an exoplanet. Starspots rotate with the star and cause relatively slow changes in the brightness of the star, while a transiting exoplanet crosses the star in a much shorter time, often as short as a few hours, and cause quick dips in the brightness of the star. A much more in-depth answer to this question can be found at the Planet Hunter’s Blog.
Question: We are fortunate that the Earth orbits our Sun in the “Habitable Zone” where it’s not too hot, it’s not too cold and liquid water can exist giving life a chance to evolve. As stars vary so much in size and luminosity how do astronomers work out where the “Habitable Zone” is around any given star? — David
Answer: The definition as to what exactly is a “habitable zone” for planets orbiting a star is rather complex, involving many factors, including the type of star, size of the planet, and even the location of the planetary system in a galaxy. A nice explanation of the constraints placed on the physical properties of a star which hosts potentially habitable planets can be found on the Penn State Astronomy Department e-Education description of the habitable zone. Generally speaking, the larger or hotter a star is, the farther away its habitable zone will be (and vice-versa).