All posts for the month September, 2018

Atacama Compact Array (ACA) on the ALMA high site at an altitude of 5000 metres in northern Chile. From here.

If you haven’t heard about it, the ALMA array, a collection of sixty-six, 12-meter radio dishes situated high in the Atacama desert, is phenomenal. Using the technique of radio interferometry, it’s capable of imaging astronomical objects in infrared (and redder) light with incredibly high resolution.

HL Tauri, as seen by ALMA.

For instance, the image at left was captured by ALMA and shows the debris disk in an infant planetary system orbiting a distant star, HL Tauri. The bull’s-eye pattern is (probably) created by nascent planets still growing by scooping up dust and gas. That disk is physically larger than our whole solar system, but as seen from Earth, 450 light-years away, the disk subtends an angle about 3 micro-degrees across – about the same as the Statue of Liberty as seen from Boise.

As it turns out, Jupiter’s moon Europa, an icy body only a little smaller than our moon, is about as big seen from Earth, making a good target for the ALMA array. Moreover, since the Galileo mission‘s exploration of the Jupiter system, few detailed and high-resolution observations have been made of Europa. On top of that, Europa has a subsurface water ocean that could host alien life.

With all this in mind, Caltech graduate student Samantha Trumbo and Prof. Mike Brown (of Pluto-killing fame) collected ALMA observations of Europa in the fall of 2015. Since ALMA observes in infrared wavelengths, it’s sensitive to heat coming off Europa and essentially acts as a long-distance thermometer, allowing them to map the temperature on Europa’s surface. If certain parts of Europa are warmer than expected, that could indicate sub-surface heating, which might have big implications for any Europan life.

Temperature map of Europa, from Trumbo et al. (2018).

But instead of mysterious hotspots, Trumbo found equally strange cold spots. The color map of Europa at left (red means hot, blue means cold) compares the expected temperatures (“Model”) to what’s actually observed (“Data”), and there are big differences all across Europa.

So what does this mean? Trumbo et al. say it’s not clear but suggest one possibility. The region with the largest temperature discrepancy corresponds to the location of highest water ice abundance, where water from the sub-surface may have been volcanically extruded onto the surface. Since this region was not been imaged at high resolution by Galileo, it’s hard to identify landforms that might corroborate recent eruptions, but such features have been observed elsewhere on Europa.

As always in science, more data would help resolve the puzzle. In any case, NASA is planning a mission for launch in the 2020s that will use an ice-penetrating radar, not too different from ALMA, to probe Europa’s sub-surface ocean and, hopefully resolve the mystery of Europa’s cold spots.


Artist’s impression of planet alignment in 2016. From here.

Anyone who’s done some stargazing has probably noticed that the Sun and the Moon appear along nearly the same arc in the sky. This Sun’s arc, called the ecliptic, corresponds to the plane of the Earth’s orbit. Since all planets in the solar system share nearly the same orbital plane, they likewise hew close to this arc. It turns out that the ecliptic also coincides closely with the Sun’s equator.

The near alignment of all planetary orbits in the solar system is one of the most important clues to their formation – the solar system originated billions of years ago from a thin disk of gas and dust girding the young Sun’s belly like a hula hoop, an idea going back at least to Immanuel Kant in the 1700s called the Nebular Hypothesis.

Once it was accepted, this idea was so successful at explaining and predicting features of the solar system, astronomers believed all planetary systems in our galaxy would resemble our own – with small, rocky planets close to their stars and large, gassy planets farther away, but all sharing the same orbital plane.

The discoveries of thousands of exoplanets have turned all that on its head – planets around other stars have orbits oriented every which way. For example, the Upsilon Andromeda system has three Jupiter-like planets, all on orbits that are widely misaligned.

Although these topsy-turvy planetary orbits were initially puzzling, astronomers are starting to tease out the explanations for these systems. Planets probably do start out in well-aligned orbits, but, like kids in the backseat on a long car trip, jostling between the planets (due to mutual gravitational tugs) soon upsets this delicate arrangement and upends the orbits. In the case of Upsilon Andromeda, planets may even have been ejected from the system.

A recent study from Fei Dai and colleagues explored connections between orbital misalignment and the origins of one puzzling class of exoplanet – small, short-period planets. These planets range in size (and probably composition) from Neptune-like to smaller than Earth but inhabit orbits very close to their host stars, some taking only hours to circle the star. Many of these short-period planets also have sibling planets farther out, and the arrangement of these orbits might tell us how the planets got so close to their stars.

As for the Upsilon Andromeda system, the mutual inclination between the orbits, if its big, may point to a history of violence in the system. Such violence may explain how the short-period planets got so close to their stars – they could have started out far away and been thrown by their siblings toward the star. By contrast, a small mutual inclination could mean the system has always been relatively quiescent, and the short-period planets may have gently migrated inward from farther out.

By analyzing the transit light curves of the planets as observed by the Kepler spacecraft, Dai and colleagues found a pattern in the mutual inclinations for these systems. From their paper, the figure below shows that when the distance of the shortest-period planet in a system a/R* is larger, the mutual inclination ΔI between orbits tends to be less widely distributed.

Figure 3 from Dai et al. (2018).

What does this result mean? Since the short-period planets closest to their stars (small a/R*) also seem to have a very wide range of mutual inclinations, maybe they experience the same kind of gravitational jostling that took place in Upsilon Andromeda, while planets farther out, they were moved in more gracefully.

Taking a wider perspective, evidence is mounting that, while planetary systems are common in the galaxy, our own solar system is unique in many ways – there’s really no place like home.