Brian’s publications

Planetary radii and orbital periods for planets (black circles) and planetary candidates (red circles) discovered by the Kepler mission. The dashed curves shows how close different planets can get to their host stars before they would be tidally disrupted. Taken from Jackson et al. (2016).

Exciting news – just today, my research group had another paper accepted for publication, so we’ve added one more tiny brick to the edifice of human knowledge.

This paper explored tidal disruption of gaseous exoplanets. Over the last few decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets outside of our solar system, so-called “exoplanets”.

Most of the planets do not resemble planets in our solar system, and owing to biases in the way we find the planets, many of them are big, gas balls like Jupiter but orbiting much closer to their host stars than planets in our solar system – these planets are called “hot Jupiters“. The figure at left shows how close some of these planets are to their host stars.

Many of these hot Jupiters are doomed to spiral in toward their host stars, and when they get too close, the star’s gravity can rip them apart in a process called “tidal disruption“.

In our recent paper, we studied that process to try to understand how close a planet can get before it’s ripped apart and what might happen as it’s being ripped apart. The upshot of our study is that planets might get ripped apart a little farther from their stars than is often assumed BUT that ripping-apart process might proceed fairly slowly, over billions of years.

Twelve multi-planet systems where the innermost member is very close to the host star, that is, has an orbital period less than 1 day. From Adams et al. (2016).

Twelve multi-planet systems where the innermost member is very close to the host star, that is, has an orbital period less than 1 day. From Adams et al. (2016).

Big research news today: our research group SuPerPiG, led by the inimitable Dr. Elisabeth Adams, announced the discovery of two new planets, EPIC 220674823 b and c.

Using data from the K2 Mission, we found these planets by looking for the shadows of the planets as they passed in front of their host stars, a planet-hunting technique known as the transit method.

These new planets are very different from planets in our solar system in several surprising ways.

First, they’re both bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune – planet b is 50% larger, and planet c is 2.5 times larger. They inhabit a strange nether-region of planets where they’re known as super-Earths or sub-Neptunes, planets somewhere between Earth and Neptune. The reason there’s no specific name for such planets is because astronomers don’t understand this new class of planet at all.

An artist's conception of CoRoT-7 b, another ultra-short-period planet.

An artist’s conception of CoRoT-7 b, another ultra-short-period planet.

Second, both planets are MUCH closer to their Sun than the planets in our solar system. In fact, planet b is so close to its sun that it takes less time to orbit (14 hours) than all the playtime it took the Cubs to go from 3 games down to tying up the World Series. By comparison, planet c circles at the glacial pace of once every 13 days.

Another thing that’s interesting about our planets: they’re yet another system of with an ultra-short-period planet (USP) in which there is more than one planet, i.e. a multi-planet system. In fact, as we argue in our paper,  most of the known systems with ultra-short-period planets are probably multi-planet systems and that fact might help explain the origin of these chthonic planets.

Artist's conception of tidal disruption of a gas giant planet.

Artist’s conception of tidal disruption of a gas giant planet.

In the last few decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of extrasolar planets, and there seems to be, on average, one planet for every star in the galaxy. Some of the planets are like those in our solar system, but many are not.

In fact, there’s a huge number of gas giant planets, like Jupiter, but on such short-period orbits they are nearly skimming the surfaces of their stars. These hot Jupiters are actually so close to their host stars, they are in danger of being torn apart by the stars’ gravity.

In a study just accepted for publication, my research group investigated what happens to a giant planet when it is ripped apart. We found that, over a few billion years, these planets can lose their entire atmospheres, leaving behind the little rocky core deep in the planet’s interior.

It also turns out that, as the planets lose their atmospheres, they can also get pushed out away from the star, and our study found that how much the planet gets pushed out depends pretty sensitively on the size of the rocky core.

That’s pretty neat because it means we can compare the masses and orbits of known rocky exoplanets to what we would expect if those little planets were actually the fossil cores of bigger gas giants that had their atmospheres ripped off.

The figure below shows how the current orbital periods of known planets P compares to what we’d expect if they were fossil cores, P_(Roche, max). In some cases, there’s a decent match, but in lots of cases, there’s not. So we’ve still got some work to do.

UPDATE (2016 Mar 24): The paper is now available for free on astro-ph.

The Astrophysical Journal published today a paper by my colleagues and myself investigating in detail a way to look for moons around transiting exoplanets.

The discoveries of thousands of planets and planetary candidates over the last few decades has motivated a parallel effort to find exomoons. In addition to providing a base of operations for the Empire, exomoons might actually be a better place to find extrasolar life than exoplanets in some ways.

This technique for finding exomoons, called the Orbital Sampling Effect, was developed by René Heller and involves looking for the subtle signature of a moon’s shadow alongside the shadow of its transiting planet host, as depicted in the image below.

At epoch (1), a satellite’s transits just before the planet. At epoch (2), the planet's transit begins, inducing a large dip the measured stellar brightness. At epoch (3), the satellite modifies the planet's transit light curve slightly but measurably.

The dark cloud shown around the planet represents the exomoon’s shadow, averaged over several orbits. At epoch (1), a satellite transits just before the planet. At epoch (2), the planet’s transit begins, inducing a large dip in the measured stellar brightness. At epoch (3), the satellite modifies the planet’s transit light curve slightly but measurably.

This simple technique has advantages over alternative exomoon searches in that it doesn’t require significant computational resources to implement. It can also use data already available from the Kepler and K2 missions. However, on its own, the technique can’t provide a moon’s mass, only its size, and it requires many transits of the host planet to find the moon’s quite subtle transit signature.

No exomoon has been found yet in spite of tremendous efforts to find them, so the search continues.

 

restless_rocks“Tucked away in California’s Death Valley National Park, the flat basin known as Racetrack Playa is littered with stones that seem to migrate across the landscape. But how do they do it? Brian Jackson describes how he and collaborators Ralph Lorenz and Richard Norris solved a long-standing mystery.” http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/2015/jul/02/the-restless-rocks-of-racetrack-playa

Thanks to Ralph and Dick for their help with this article. It was a lot of fun to write.

Pressure variations (in hectoPascal, hPa) vs. local time for one dust devil pressure dip. The blue curve shows our model fit.

Pressure variations (in hectoPascal, hPa) vs. local time for one dust devil pressure dip. The blue curve shows our model fit.

Dust devils occur in arid climates on the Earth and ubiquitously on Mars. Martian dust devils have been studied with orbiting and landed spacecraft, while most studies of terrestrial dust devils have involved manned monitoring of field sites, which can be costly both in time and personnel. As an alternative approach, my colleague Ralph Lorenz and I performed a multi-year in-situ survey of terrestrial dust devils using pressure loggers deployed at El Dorado Playa in Nevada, USA, a site known for dust devil activity.

When a dust devil passed over our pressure sensors, it appeared as a pressure dip in the time series, as illustrated in the figure. By modeling these signals, we learned a lot of about dust devils. For instance, in spite of expectations, we found signals that looked a lot like dust devils that occurred at night and even in the winter. So do dust devils happen year-round, day and night? More work will help us figure it out.

Our paper on this study will appear soon in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.

Synthetic data for the new pointing capabilities of Kepler. The red points show when the planet is transiting.

Synthetic data for the new pointing capabilities of Kepler, showing the expected brightness variations for a planet hosting a star that transits (i.e., the planet passes in front of the star, blocking out some of the light). The red points show when the planet is transiting.

Recently, the Kepler mission announced that two reaction wheels on the spacecraft have failed, and so the telescope won’t be able to point as accurately as before. As a result, data from the telescope will suffer from large instrumental variations (see figure at right), and so it will be difficult to detect Earth-like planets. However, the telescope may be able to detect other kinds of planets and study other astronomical phenomena.

In response to a request from Kepler for new ideas of what to do with the telescope, I wrote about an idea to search for very short-period (less than 1 day) planets. A re-purposed Kepler mission could continue the search for nearly Earth-sized planets in very short-period orbits. Our recent work revealed more than a dozen such planetary candidates, and a more complete and focused survey is likely to reveal more.

Figure 20 from Jackson et al. (2013) showing the distance from their host stars at which planets would be torn apart.

Figure 20 from Jackson et al. (2013) showing the distance from their host stars at which planets would be torn apart (solid red line).

Today I submitted a new paper for publication, “A Survey for Very Short-Period Planets in the Kepler Data.” Our new survey of data from the Kepler planet-hunting mission has revealed planetary candidates with orbital periods as short as three hours, so close to their host stars they are nearly skimming the stellar surface.

We used data from the Kepler mission, which finds planets using the transit method — by looking for their shadows as the planets pass between their host stars and the Earth. Since the planets are so far from the Earth, we can’t see them directly and instead only see the little dip in brightness of the host star as the planet passes in front of it.

Over the last few decades, astronomers have found a breath-taking menagerie of exotic planetary systems, and the candidate planets we found in this paper are no exception: more than 100 times closer to their host stars than the Earth is to the Sun, if these candidates turn out to be rocky planets, their surface are baking at nearly 5,000 degrees F (3000 K), producing giant lakes of molten rock.

In fact, these planets are so close to their host stars that they are on the verge of being torn apart by the stars’ gravity. The figure at left shows the orbital distances for these planets (red dots) relative to the distance at which they would be torn apart (shown by the red line). The blue line shows where they would have been torn apart if, instead of being rocky, they were more like hot gas giant planets.

We’ve still got some work to do to make sure these candidates are actually planets, but if confirmed, they would be some of the closest planets to their stars ever discovered, once again overturning what astronomers thought we knew about where planets can live and what they’re like.