Earth may not provide the best blueprint for how rocky planets are born.
An analysis of planets outside the solar system suggests that most hot, rocky exoplanets started out more like gassy Neptunes. Such planets are rocky now because their stars blew their thick atmospheres away, leaving nothing but an inhospitable core, researchers report in a paper posted online October 15 at arXiv.org. That could mean these planets are not as representative of Earth as scientists thought, and using them to estimate the frequency of potentially life-hosting worlds is misleading.
“One of the big discoveries is that Earth-sized, likely rocky planets are incredibly common, at least on hotter orbits,” says planetary scientist Eric Lopez of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who wasn’t involved in the study. “The big question is, are those hot exoplanets telling us anything about the frequency of Earthlike planets? This suggests that they might not be.”
Observations so far suggest that worlds about Earth’s size probably cluster into two categories: rocky super-Earths and gaseous mini-Neptunes (SN Online: 6/19/17). Super-Earths are between one and 1.5 times as wide as Earth; mini-Neptunes are between 2.5 and four times Earth’s size. Earlier work showed that there’s a clear gap between these planet sizes.
Because planets that are close to their stars are easier for telescopes to see, most of the rocky super-Earths discovered so far have close-in orbits — with years lasting between about two to 100 Earth days — making the worlds way too hot to host life as we know it. But because they are rocky like Earth, scientists include these worlds with their cooler brethren when estimating how many habitable planets might be out there.
If hot super-Earths start out rocky, perhaps it is because the worlds form later than their puffy mini-Neptune companions, when there’s less gas left in the growing planetary system to build an atmosphere. Or, conversely, such planets, along with mini-Neptunes, may start with thick atmospheres. These rocky worlds may have had their atmospheres stripped away by stellar winds.
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A gap exists between the sizes of small, rocky planets (red) and slightly larger, gaseous planets (blue). The slope of the gap trends downward, with most of the largest rocky worlds nestling close to their stars, suggesting the planets started out with thick atmospheres that their stars blew away.
Now, exoplanet astronomer Vincent Van Eylen of Leiden University in the Netherlands and his colleagues have shown that the fault is in the stars. “You really have these two populations, and the influence of the star is what creates this separation,” Van Eylen says. That result could warn astronomers not to rely too heavily on these hot, rocky worlds when calculating how many habitable planets are likely to exist.
To measure the planets’ sizes, astronomers need to know the sizes of their stars. Van Eylen and colleagues analyzed 117 planets whose host stars’ sizes had been measured using astroseismology. This technique tracks how often the star’s brightness changes as interior oscillations ripple through it, and uses the frequency to determine its size.
“Think of the stars as musical instruments,” Van Eylen says. A double bass and a violin produce sound the same way, but the pitch is different because of the instrument’s size. “It’s exactly the same thing with stars.”
The researchers then calculated the planets’ sizes — between one and four times the Earth — with about four times greater precision than in previous studies. As expected, the planets clustered in groups of around 1.5 and 2.5 times Earth’s radius, leaving a gap in the middle.
Next the team looked at how the planets’ sizes changed with distance from the host star. Planets that were rocky from the start should be smaller close to the stars, where studies of other young star systems suggest there should have been less material available when these planets were forming. But if proximity to a star’s winds is key, there should be some larger rocky worlds closer in, with smaller gaseous worlds farther out.
Van Eylen’s planets matched the second picture: The largest of the rocky planets nestled close to the stars were bigger than the distant ones. That suggests the rocky planets once had atmospheres, and lost them.
“It’s not fair to take the close-in planets and assume that the more distant planets are just like them,” says exoplanet astronomer Courtney Dressing of the University of California, Berkeley. “You might be fooling yourself.”