March 17, 2010
Astronomers Size Up First Temperate Exoplanet
Combining observations from the CoRoT satellite and the ESO HARPS instrument, astronomers have discovered the first "normal" exoplanet that can be studied in great detail. Designated Corot-9b, the planet regularly passes in front of a star similar to the Sun located 1500 light-years away from Earth towards the constellation of Serpens (the Snake).
"This is a normal, temperate exoplanet just like dozens we already know, but this is the first whose properties we can study in depth," says Claire Moutou, who is part of the international team of 60 astronomers that made the discovery. "It is bound to become a Rosetta stone in exoplanet research."
"Like our own giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, the planet is mostly made of hydrogen and helium," says team member Tristan Guillot, "and it may contain up to 20 Earth masses of other elements, including water and rock at high temperatures and pressures."
Corot-9b passes in front of its host star every 95 days, as seen from Earth . This "transit" lasts for about 8 hours, and provides astronomers with much additional information on the planet. This is fortunate as the gas giant shares many features with the majority of exoplanets discovered so far .
"Our analysis has provided more information on Corot-9b than for other exoplanets of the same type," says co-author Didier Queloz. "It may open up a new field of research to understand the atmospheres of moderate- and low-temperature planets, and in particular a completely new window in our understanding of low-temperature chemistry."
More than 400 exoplanets have been discovered so far, 70 of them through the transit method. Corot-9b is special in that its distance from its host star is about ten times larger than that of any planet previously discovered by this method. And unlike all such exoplanets, the planet has a temperate climate. The temperature of its gaseous surface is expected to be between 160 degrees and minus twenty degrees Celsius, with minimal variations between day and night. The exact value depends on the possible presence of a layer of highly reflective clouds.
The CoRoT satellite, operated by the French space agency CNES , identified the planet after 145 days of observations during the summer of 2008. Observations with the very successful ESO exoplanet hunter "” the HARPS instrument attached to the 3.6-meter ESO telescope at La Silla in Chile "” allowed the astronomers to measure its mass, confirming that Corot-9b is indeed an exoplanet, with a mass about 80% the mass of Jupiter.
This finding is being published in this week's edition of the journal Nature.
 A planetary transit occurs when a celestial body passes in front of its host star and blocks some of the star's light. This type of eclipse causes changes in the apparent brightness of the star and enables the planet's diameter to be measured. Combined with radial velocity measurements made by the HARPS spectrograph, it is also possible to deduce the mass and, hence, the density of the planet. It is this combination that allows astronomers to study this object in great detail. The fact that it is transiting "” but nevertheless not so close to its star to be a "hot Jupiter" "” is what makes this object uniquely well suited for further studies.
 Temperate gas giants are, so far, the largest known group of exoplanets discovered.
 The CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and Transits) space telescope was constructed by CNES, with contributions from Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Brazil and the European Space Agency (ESA). It was specifically designed to detect transiting exoplanets and carry out seismological studies of stars. Its results are supplemented by observations with several ground-based telescopes, among them the IAC-80 (Teide Observatory), the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (Hawaii), the Isaac Newton Telescope (Roque de los Muchachos Observatory), Wise Observatory (Israel), the Faulkes North Telescope of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (Hawaii) and the ESO 3.6-meter telescope (Chile).
This research was presented in a paper published this week in Nature ("A transiting giant planet with a temperature between 250 K and 430 K"), by H. J. Deeg et al.
The team is composed of H.J. Deeg, B. Tingley, J.M. Almenara, and M. Rabus (Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain), C. Moutou, P. Barge, A. S. Bonomo, M. Deleuil, J.-C. Gazzano, L. Jorda, and A. Llebaria (Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Universit© de Provence, CNRS, OAMP, France), A. Erikson, Sz. Csizmadia, J. Cabrera, P. Kabath, H. Rauer (Institute of Planetary Research, German Aerospace Center, Berlin, Germany), H. Bruntt, M. Auvergne, A. Baglin, D. Rouan, and J. Schneider (Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, France), S. Aigrain and F. Pont (University of Exeter, UK), R. Alonso, C. Lovis, M. Mayor, F. Pepe, D. Queloz, and S. Udry (Observatoire de l'Universit© de Genve, Switzerland), M. Barbieri (UniversitÃ di Padova, Italia), W. Benz (Universität Bern, Switzerland), P. Bord©, A. L©ger, M. Ollivier, and B. Samuel (Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale, Universit© Paris XI, Orsay, France), F. Bouchy and G. H©brard (IAP, Paris, France), L. Carone and M. Pätzold (Rheinisches Institut fr Umweltforschung an der Universität zu Köln, Germany), S. Carpano, M. Fridlund, P. Gondoin, and R. den Hartog (ESTEC/ESA, Noordwijk, The Netherlands), D. Ciardi (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute/Caltech, USA), R. Dvorak (University of Vienna, Austria), S. Ferraz-Mello (Universidade de SÃ£o Paulo, Brasil), D. Gandolfi, E. Guenther, A. Hatzes, G. Wuchterl, B. Stecklum (Thringer Landessternwarte, Tautenburg, Germany), M. Gillon (University of Lige, Belgium), T. Guillot and M. Havel (Observatoire de la CÃ´te d' Azur, Nice, France), M. Hidas, T. Lister, and R. Street (Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, Santa Barbara, USA), H. Lammer and J. Weingrill (Space Research Institute, Austrian Academy of Science), and T. Mazeh and A. Shporer (Tel Aviv University, Israel).
ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious program focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organizing cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world's largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-meter European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".
Image Caption: This artist's impression shows the transiting exoplanet Corot-9b. Discovered by combining observations from the CoRoT satellite and the ESO HARPS instrument, Corot-9b is the first "normal" exoplanet that can be studied in great detail. This planet has the size of Jupiter and an orbit similar to that of Mercury. It orbits a star similar to the Sun located 1500 light-years away from Earth towards the constellation of Serpens (the Snake). Corot-9b passes in front of its host star every 95 days, as seen from Earth. This "transit" lasts for about 8 hours. Like our own giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, the planet is mostly made of hydrogen and helium, and it may contain up to 20 Earth masses of other elements, including water and rock at high temperatures and pressures. Credit: ESO/L. CalÃ§ada
On the Net:
- Research paper (pdf)
- More info: exoplanet media kit (pdf)
- Video 1: Artist's impression of Corot-9b
- Video 2: Artist's impression of Corot-9b (orbit)
- Video 3: Artist's impression of Corot-9b (transit)