January 13, 2010
By studying a triple planetary system that resembles a scaled-up version of our own Sun's family of planets, astronomers have obtained the first direct spectrum — the chemical fingerprint — of a planet orbiting a distant star. The result is new insights into the planet's formation and composition and represents a milestone in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.
"The spectrum of a planet provides key information about the chemical elements in the planet's atmosphere," said Markus Janson, lead author of the paper reporting the new findings. "With this information, we can better understand how the planet formed and, in the future, we might even be able to find tell-tale signs of the presence of life."
The researchers obtained the spectrum of a giant exoplanet that orbits the bright, young star HR 8799. The system is at about 130 light-years from Earth. The star has 1.5 times the mass of the Sun, and it hosts a planetary system that resembles a scaled-up model of our own solar system. Another team detected giant companion planets in 2008 with masses between seven and 10 times that of Jupiter. These planets are between 20 and 70 times as far from their host star as Earth is from the Sun; the system also features two belts of smaller objects, similar to our solar system's asteroid and Kuiper belts.
"Our target was the middle planet of the three, which is roughly 10 times more massive than Jupiter and has a temperature of about 800° Celsius," said team member Carolina Bergfors. "After more than 5 hours of exposure time, we were able to tease out the planet's spectrum from the host star's much brighter light."
This is the first time the spectrum of an exoplanet orbiting a normal, almost Sun-like star has been obtained directly. Previously, the only spectra to be obtained required a space telescope to watch an exoplanet pass directly behind its host star in an "exoplanetary eclipse," and then the spectrum could be extracted by comparing the light of the star before and after. However, this method can only be applied if the orientation of the exoplanet's orbit is exactly right, which is true for only a small fraction of all exoplanetary systems. The present spectrum, on the other hand, was obtained from the ground, using European Southern Obervatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), in direct observations that do not depend on the orbit's orientation.
As the host star is several thousand times brighter than the planet, this is a remarkable achievement. "It's like trying to see what a candle is made of, by observing it from a distance of about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) when it's next to a blindingly bright 300 Watt lamp," said Janson.
The discovery was made possible by the infrared instrument NACO, mounted on the VLT, and relied heavily on the capabilities of the instrument's adaptive optics system. Even more precise images and spectra of giant exoplanets are expected both from the next generation Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument, to be installed on the VLT in 2011, and from the European Extremely Large Telescope.
The newly collected data show the atmosphere enclosing the planet is still poorly understood. "The features observed in the spectrum are not compatible with current theoretical models," explained co-author Wolfgang Brandner. "We need to take into account a more detailed description of the atmospheric dust clouds, or accept that the atmosphere has a different chemical composition from that previously assumed."
The astronomers hope to soon get their hands on the fingerprints of the other two giant planets so they can compare, for the first time, the spectra of three planets belonging to the same system. "This will surely shed new light on the processes that lead to the formation of planetary systems like our own," concluded Janson.