w. m keck observatory

Four Earth-sized planets detected orbiting the nearest sun-like star

A new study by an international team of astronomers reveals that four Earth-sized planets orbit the nearest sun-like star, tau Ceti, which is about 12 light years away and visible to the naked eye. These planets have masses as low as 1.7 Earth mass, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around nearby sun-like stars. Two of them are super-Earths located in the habitable zone of the star, meaning they could support liquid surface water.

The planets were detected by observing the wobbles in the movement of tau Ceti. This required techniques sensitive enough to detect variations in the movement of the star as small as 30 centimeters per second.

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Huge storm on Neptune

Spectacular sunsets and sunrises are enough to dazzle most of us, but to astronomers, dusk and dawn are a waste of good observing time. They want a truly dark sky.

Not Ned Molter, a UC Berkeley astronomy graduate student. He set out to show that some bright objects can be studied just as well during twilight, when other astronomers are twiddling their thumbs, and quickly discovered a new feature on Neptune: A storm system nearly the size of Earth.

“Seeing a storm this bright at such a low latitude is extremely surprising,” said Molter, who spotted the storm complex near Neptune’s equator during a dawn test run of twilight observing at W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii. “Normally, this area is really quiet and we only see bright clouds in the mid-latitude bands, so to have such an enormous cloud sitting right at the equator is spectacular.”

This massive storm system, which was found in a region where no bright cloud has ever been seen before, is about 9,000 kilometers in length, or one-third the size of Neptune’s radius, spanning at least 30 degrees in both latitude and longitude. Molter observed it getting much brighter between June 26 and July 2.

“Historically, very bright clouds have occasionally been seen on Neptune, but usually at latitudes closer to the poles, around 15 to 60 degrees north or south,” said Imke de Pater, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy and Molter’s adviser. “Never before has a cloud been seen at or so close to the equator, nor has one ever been this bright.”

At first, de Pater thought it was the same Northern Cloud Complex seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994, after the iconic Great Dark Spot, imaged by Voyager 2 in 1989, had disappeared. But de Pater says measurements of its locale do not match, signaling that this cloud complex is different from the one Hubble first saw more than two decades ago.

A huge, high-pressure, dark vortex system anchored deep in Neptune’s atmosphere may be what’s causing the colossal cloud cover, said de Pater. As gases rise up in a vortex, they cool down. When its temperature drops below the condensation temperature of a condensable gas, that gas condenses out and forms clouds, just like water on Earth. On Neptune, however, methane clouds form.

As with every planet, winds in Neptune’s atmosphere vary drastically with latitude, so if there is a big bright cloud system that spans many latitudes, something must hold it together, such as a dark vortex. Otherwise, the clouds would shear apart.

“This big vortex is sitting in a region where the air, overall, is subsiding rather than rising,” said de Pater. “Moreover, a long-lasting vortex right at the equator would be hard to explain physically.”
If it is not tied to a vortex, the system may be a huge convective cloud, similar to those seen occasionally on other planets, like the huge storm on Saturn that was detected in 2010. However, such a cloud would be expected to smear out considerably over a week’s time.

“This shows that there are extremely drastic changes in the dynamics of Neptune’s atmosphere, and perhaps this is a seasonal weather event that may happen every few decades or so,” said de Pater.

A windy planet

Neptune is the windiest planet in our solar system, with the fastest observed wind speeds at the equator reaching up to a violent 1,000 mph. To put this into perspective, a Category 5 hurricane has wind speeds of 156 mph. Neptune orbits the sun every 160 years, and one season is about 40 years.

The discovery of Neptune’s mysterious equatorial cloud complex was made possible by the new Keck Visiting Scholars Program, launched this summer, which gives graduate students and post-doctoral researchers experience working at the telescope, while contributing to Keck Observatory and its scientific community.

“This result by Imke and her first-year graduate student, Ned, is a perfect example of what we’re trying to accomplish with the Keck Visiting Scholars Program,” said Anne Kinney, chief scientist at Keck Observatory. “Ned is our first visiting scholar, and his incredible work is a testament to the value of this program. It’s just been an outrageous success.”

Molter is one of eight scholars accepted into the program this year. His assignment during his six-week stay at the Observatory was to develop a more efficient method for twilight observing, making use of time that otherwise might not be used. Most observers in the Keck Observatory community peer deep into the night sky and cannot observe their targets during twilight.

“Ned had never observed before, and he’s very bright, so when Anne told me about the program, I knew he would be the perfect student for it,” said de Pater. “Now that we’ve discovered this interesting cloud complex in Neptune, Ned has a running start on a nice paper for his Ph.D. thesis.”

“I loved being at Keck. Everyone was extremely friendly and I had a ton of personal interaction with the support astronomers and observing assistants,” Molter said. “Being able to go behind the scenes to see how they run the telescopes and instruments every day, getting 10 nights of observing and engineering time on the telescopes and going up to the summit twice to see the incredible engineering behind this gigantic machine has turned me from a student into an actual observer. It was an incredible opportunity.”

The Keck Visiting Scholars Program is sponsored by Roy and Frances Simperman, with major contributions from the M.R. and Evelyn Hudson Foundation, W.M. Keck Foundation, Edge of Space, Inc., Thomas McIntyre, and Jeff and Rebecca Steele.

Molter and De Pater will continue to analyze their data and propose for more twilight observing time at Keck Observatory this fall so they can learn more about the nature of this storm and get an idea of what it will be doing over time.

Having a better understanding of Neptune’s atmosphere will help give astronomers a clearer picture of this icy giant’s global circulation. This has become increasingly more important in the exoplanet realm, as a majority of exoplanets found so far are nearly the size of Neptune. While scientists can calculate their size and mass, not much is currently known about exoplanets’ atmosphere.

IMAGE….Images of Neptune taken during twilight observing revealed an extremely large bright storm system near Neptune’s equator (labeled ‘cloud complex’ in the upper figure), a region where astronomers have never seen a bright cloud. The center of the storm complex is ~9,000 km across, about ¾ the size of Earth, or 1/3 of Neptune’s radius. The storm brightened considerably between June 26 and July 2, as noted in the logarithmic scale of the images taken on July 2. Credit N. Molter/I. De Pater, UC Berkeley & C. Alvarez, W. M. Keck Observatory

Ten near-Earth size planets in habitable zone of their star

NASA’s Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star’s habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

This is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, from Kepler’s first four years of data. It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.

With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

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** Abstract: Quasars are luminous objects with supermassive black holes at their centers, visible over vast cosmic distances. Infalling matter increases the black hole mass and is also responsible for a quasar’s brightness. Now, using the W. M. Keck observatory in Hawaii, astronomers led by Christina Eilers have discovered extremely young quasars with a puzzling property: these quasars have the mass of about a billion Suns, yet have been collecting matter for less than 100,000 years. Conventional wisdom says quasars of that mass should have needed to pull in matter a thousand times longer than that – a cosmic conundrum. The results have been published in the May 2 edition of the Astrophysical Journal. **

Within the heart of every massive galaxy lurks a supermassive black hole. How these black holes formed, and how they have grown to be as massive as millions or even billions of Suns, is an open question. At least some phases of vigorous growth are highly visible to astronomical observers: Whenever there are substantial amounts of gas swirling into the black hole, matter in the direct vicinity of the black hole emits copious amount of light. The black hole has intermittently turned into a quasar, one of the most luminous objects in the universe.

Now, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) have discovered three quasars that challenge conventional wisdom on black hole growth. These quasars are extremely massive, but should not have had sufficient time to collect all that mass. The discovery, which is based on observations at the W. M. Keck observatory in Hawaii, glimpses into ancient cosmic history: Because of their extreme brightness, quasars can be observed out to large distances. The astronomers observed quasars whose light took nearly 13 billion years to reach Earth. In consequence, the observations show these quasars not as they are today, but as they were almost 13 billion years ago, less than a billion years after the big bang.

The quasars in question have about a billion times the mass of the Sun. All current theories of black hole growth postulate that, in order to grow that massive, the black holes would have needed to collect infalling matter, and shine brightly as quasars, for at least a hundred million years. But these three quasars proved to be have been active for a much shorter time, less than 100,000 years. “This is a surprising result,” explains Christina Eilers, a doctoral student at MPIA and lead author of the present study. “We don’t understand how these young quasars could have grown the supermassive black holes that power them in such a short time.”

To determine how long these quasars had been active, the astronomers examined how the quasars had influenced their environment – in particular, they examined heated, mostly transparent “proximity zones” around each quasar. “By simulating how the light from quasars ionizes and heats gas around them, we can predict how large the proximity zone of each quasar should be,” explains Frederick Davies, a postdoctoral researcher at MPIA who is an expert in the interaction between quasar light and intergalactic gas. Once the quasar has been “switched on” by infalling matter, these proximity zones grow very quickly. “Within a lifetime of 100,000 years, quasars should already have large proximity zones.”

Surprisingly, three of the quasars had very small proximity zones – indicating that the active quasar phase cannot have set in more than 100,000 years earlier. “No current theoretical models can explain the existence of these objects,” says Professor Joseph Hennawi, who leads the research group at MPIA that made the discovery. “The discovery of these young objects challenges the existing theories of black hole formation and will require new models to better understand how black holes and galaxies formed.”

The astronomers have already planned their next steps. “We would like to find more of these young quasars,” says Christina Eilers, “While finding these three unusual quasars might have been a fluke, finding additional examples would imply that a significant fraction of the known quasar population is much younger than expected.” The scientists have already applied for telescope time to observe several additional candidates. The results, they hope, will constrain new theoretical models about the formation of the first supermassive black holes in the universe – and, by implication, help astronomers understand the history of the giant supermassive black holes at the center of present-day galaxies like our own Milky Way.

TOP IMAGE….Basic set-up of the quasar observations: Light from a quasar (right) is absorbed by gas. Absorption is much less in the quasar’s proximity zone, which is shown in green for an older quasar, in yellow for a younger quasar. The extent of the proximity zone can be read off the spectrum (bottom). The quasar itself is a central black hole, surrounded by a disk of swirling matter, and possibly sending out particles in two tightly focussed jets (inset, top right).
Image: A. C. Eilers & J. Neidel, MPIA

LOWER IMAGE….Artists’ impression of a quasar: black hole (center) surrounded by a hot accretion disk, with two jets consisting of extremely fast particles perpendicularly to the disk.
Image: J. Neidel / MPIA


Supercomputer Visualizes Action At Milky Way’s Center

These gifs show the orbits of stars around a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The orbits helped to uncover the existence of the black hole, which sits around 25,000 light years away from Earth and is estimated to have 4 million times the mass of our sun. 

The gifs were created from a 3-D visualization made by the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing using observations taken by telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory between 1995 and 2012. Read more about the work here and here.

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Evidence of a real ninth planet discovered

Caltech researchers have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed Planet Nine, has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). In fact, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the sun.

The researchers, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered the planet’s existence through mathematical modeling and computer simulations but have not yet observed the object directly.

“This would be a real ninth planet,” says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy. “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.”

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A new study has revealed similarities and relationships between certain types of chemicals found on 30 different comets, which vary widely in their overall composition compared to one another. The research is part of ongoing investigations into these primordial bodies, which contain material largely unchanged from the birth of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

By studying the composition of hazy comas and tails of these comets, researchers found that certain chemical ices on the comets would regularly appear in concert with other chemicals in a correlated way, while certain other chemicals appeared or were absent independently from others. “This relates to how the chemicals are stored together or sequestered in the nucleus, or body of the comet,” said the paper’s lead author, Neil Dello Russo, a space scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The amounts and relationships of the chemicals observed in comets can help researchers understand more about the formation of our solar system. “We want to study the abundances of these chemicals because comets are a window into the distant past, and they can tell us what the chemical characteristics and conditions were like in the early solar system,” said Dello Russo. The team studied various types of simple but abundant chemicals, including volatiles such as water, methane, carbon monoxide and ammonia. Observations from Earth cannot directly detect these chemicals on the nucleus of comets, but gases, ices and grains released from the comet leave a chemical trail that can be observed in the hazy comas and tails of comets.

Researchers studied data gathered from 1997 to 2013, and included both short-period comets (those that are stored around the Kuiper belt beyond the gas giant planets) and long-period comets (which formed among the gas giants before they were ejected to the far more distant Oort cloud). The study compared the chemical makeup of the comets measured after they were released from these reservoirs and found that while each comet has a unique chemical signature, short-period comets are on average more depleted in certain chemicals than long-period comets from the Oort cloud.

The findings were published in the November issue of Icarus.

The study utilized Earth-based high-resolution infrared spectrometers, which can observe minute differences in color that reveal diagnostic fingerprints of the chemicals present in comet tails. Data from the Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSPEC) at the Keck 2 Telescope of the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii; the Cryogenic Echelle Spectrometer (CSHELL) at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Maunakea; the Infrared Camera and Spectrograph at the Subaru telescope, also on Maunakea; and the CRyogenic high-resolution InfraRed Echelle Spectrograph (CRIRES) spectrometer at the VLT Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile, were used.

Dello Russo explained that this research was only made possible due to recent breakthroughs in infrared spectrometers: “In the past 20 years, technological advances have really made it possible to accurately detect volatile chemicals in comets, and to do so for comets that are fainter and farther away than previously possible. That allowed us to study a large enough group of comets to note and examine significant trends.”

Dello Russo said that studies such as these are needed to expand what scientists know about the nature and history of comets, how cometary ices are related, and how they are stored in and released from the nucleus. “Comets are very diverse,” he said. “When NASA or ESA sends a mission to a comet, we can learn a tremendous amount of detail on that specific comet. What our research does is put those findings into the larger chemical context of the overall comet population. We can help answer where an individual comet fits into the population of comets.”

IMAGE….This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 disintegrating in 2006 shows the tails and comas of the individual pieces of the comet; new research on comet composition included infrared spectrography of this comet during its breakup.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (APL), M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)


Scientists have been fascinated by a series of unusual exploding stars-outcasts beyond the typical cozy confines of their galaxies. A new analysis of 13 supernovae – including archived data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope – is helping astronomers explain how some young stars exploded sooner than expected, hurling them to a lonely place far from their host galaxies. It’s a complicated mystery of double-star systems, merging galaxies, and twin black holes that began in 2000 when the first such supernova was discovered, according to study leader Ryan Foley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This story has taken lots of twists and turns, and I was surprised every step of the way,” he said. “We knew these stars had to be far from the source of their explosion as supernovae and wanted to find out how they arrived at their current homes.”

Foley thought that the doomed stars had somehow migrated to their final resting spots. To prove his idea, he studied data from the Lick Observatory in California and the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope, both in Hawaii, to determine how fast the stars were traveling. To his surprise, he discovered that the doomed stars were zipping along at about the same speed as stars that have been tossed out of our Milky Way galaxy by its central supermassive black hole, at more than 5 million miles (7 million kilometers) an hour. The astronomer then turned his attention to the aging galaxies in the area of the speeding supernovae. Studying Hubble archival images, he confirmed that many are massive elliptical galaxies that were merging or had recently merged with other galaxies. The lanes are the shredded remnants of a cannibalized galaxy. Other observations provided circumstantial evidence for such encounters, showing that the cores of many of these galaxies had active supermassive black holes fueled by the collision. Many of the galaxies also reside in dense environments at the heart of galaxy clusters, a prime area for mergers. The telltale clue was strong dust lanes piercing through the centers of several of them.

The location of the supernovae in relation to ancient galaxies indicates that the original stars must have been old, too, Foley reasoned. And if the stars were old, then they must have had companions with them that provided enough material to trigger a supernova blast.

How does a double-star system escape the boundaries of a galaxy?

Foley hypothesizes that a pair of supermassive black holes in the merging galaxies can provide the gravitational slingshot to rocket the binary stars into intergalactic space. Hubble observations reveal that nearly every galaxy has a massive black hole at its center. According to Foley’s scenario, after two galaxies merge, their black holes migrate to the center of the new galaxy, each with a trailing a cluster of stars. As the black holes dance around each other, slowly getting closer, one of the binary stars in the black holes’ entourage may wander too close to the other black hole. Many of these stars will be flung far away, and those ejected stars in surviving binary systems will orbit even closer after the encounter, which speeds up the merger.

“With a single black hole, occasionally a star will wander too close to it and have an extreme interaction,” Foley said. “With two black holes, there are two reservoirs of stars being dragged close to another black hole. This dramatically increases the likelihood that a star is ejected.” While the black hole at the center of the Milky Way may eject about one star a century, a binary supermassive black hole may kick out 100 stars a year.

After getting booted out of the galaxy, the binary stars move closer together as their orbits continue to accelerate, which speeds up the binary stars’ aging process. The binary stars are likely both white dwarfs, which are the burned out relics of stars. Eventually, the white dwarfs get close enough that one is ripped apart by tidal forces. As material from the dead star is quickly dumped onto the surviving star, an explosion occurs, causing the supernova.

The time it takes for one of these ejected stars to explode is relatively short, about 50 million years. Normally, these kinds of binary stars take a long time to merge, probably much longer than the age of the universe, which is more than 13 billion years.

“The interaction with the black holes shortens that fuse,” Foley explained.

While scientists think they have found what causes these outcast supernovae, some mysteries remain unsolved, such as why they are unusually weak. These supernovae produced more than five times as much calcium as other stellar explosions. Normally, supernova explosions have enough energy to create much heavier elements, such as iron and nickel, at the expense of producing the lighter calcium. However, for these atypical explosions, the fusion chain stops midway, leaving lots of calcium and very little iron.

“Everything points to a weak explosion,” said Foley. “We know that these blasts have lower kinetic energy and less luminosity than typical supernovae. They also appear to have less ejected mass, whereas a more energetic explosion should completely unbind the star.”

The results appear in the August 13 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Mars: The Planet that Lost an Ocean’s Worth of Water

A primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean, and covered a greater portion of the planet’s surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth, according to new results published today. An international team of scientists used ESO’s Very Large Telescope, along with instruments at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, to monitor the atmosphere of the planet and map out the properties of the water in different parts of Mars’s atmosphere over a six-year period. These new maps are the first of their kind. The results appear online in the journal Science today.

About four billion years ago, the young planet would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.

“Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,” said Geronimo Villanueva, a scientist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, USA, and lead author of the new paper. “With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.”

The new estimate is based on detailed observations of two slightly different forms of water in Mars’s atmosphere. One is the familiar form of water, made with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, H2O. The other is HDO, or semi-heavy water, a naturally occurring variation in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by a heavier form, called deuterium.

As the deuterated form is heavier than normal water, it is less easily lost into space through evaporation. So, the greater the water loss from the planet, the greater the ratio of HDO to H2O in the water that remains [1].

The researchers distinguished the chemical signatures of the two types of water using ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, along with instruments at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii [2]. By comparing the ratio of HDO to H2O, scientists can measure by how much the fraction of HDO has increased and thus determine how much water has escaped into space. This in turn allows the amount of water on Mars at earlier times to be estimated.

In the study, the team mapped the distribution of H2O and HDO repeatedly over nearly six Earth years — equal to about three Mars years — producing global snapshots of each, as well as their ratio. The maps reveal seasonal changes and microclimates, even though modern Mars is essentially a desert.

Ulli Kaeufl of ESO, who was responsible for building one of the instruments used in this study and is a co-author of the new paper, adds: “I am again overwhelmed by how much power there is in remote sensing on other planets using astronomical telescopes: we found an ancient ocean more than 100 million kilometres away!”

The team was especially interested in regions near the north and south poles, because the polar ice caps are the planet’s largest known reservoir of water. The water stored there is thought to document the evolution of Mars’s water from the wet Noachian period, which ended about 3.7 billion years ago, to the present.

The new results show that atmospheric water in the near-polar region was enriched in HDO by a factor of seven relative to Earth’s ocean water, implying that water in Mars’s permanent ice caps is enriched eight-fold. Mars must have lost a volume of water 6.5 times larger than the present polar caps to provide such a high level of enrichment. The volume of Mars’s early ocean must have been at least 20 million cubic kilometres.

Based on the surface of Mars today, a likely location for this water would be the Northern Plains, which have long been considered a good candidate because of their low-lying ground. An ancient ocean there would have covered 19% of the planet’s surface — by comparison, the Atlantic Ocean occupies 17% of the Earth’s surface.

“With Mars losing that much water, the planet was very likely wet for a longer period of time than previously thought, suggesting the planet might have been habitable for longer,” said Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at Goddard and the second author on the paper.

It is possible that Mars once had even more water, some of which may have been deposited below the surface. Because the new maps reveal microclimates and changes in the atmospheric water content over time, they may also prove to be useful in the continuing search for underground water.


[1] In oceans on Earth there are about 3200 molecules of H2O for each HDO molecule.

[2] Although probes on the Martian surface and orbiting the planet can provide much more detailed in situ measurements, they are not suitable for monitoring the properties of the whole Martian atmosphere. This is best done using infrared spectrographs on large telescopes back on Earth.


Hubble confirms new dark spot on Neptune

New images obtained on May 16, 2016, by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope confirm the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. Though similar features were seen during the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune in 1989 and by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994, this vortex is the first one observed on Neptune in the 21st century.

The discovery was announced on May 17, 2016, in a Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) electronic telegram by University of California at Berkeley research astronomer Mike Wong, who led the team that analyzed the Hubble data.

Neptune’s dark vortices are high-pressure systems and are usually accompanied by bright “companion clouds,” which are also now visible on the distant planet. The bright clouds form when the flow of ambient air is perturbed and diverted upward over the dark vortex, causing gases to likely freeze into methane ice crystals. “Dark vortices coast through the atmosphere like huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountains,” Wong said. “And the companion clouds are similar to so-called orographic clouds that appear as pancake-shaped features lingering over mountains on Earth.”

Beginning in July 2015, bright clouds were again seen on Neptune by several observers, from amateurs to astronomers at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Astronomers suspected that these clouds might be bright companion clouds following an unseen dark vortex. Neptune’s dark vortices are typically only seen at blue wavelengths, and only Hubble has the high resolution required for seeing them on distant Neptune.
In September 2015, the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, a long-term Hubble Space Telescope project that annually captures global maps of the outer planets, revealed a dark spot close to the location of the bright clouds, which had been tracked from the ground. By viewing the vortex a second time, the new Hubble images confirm that OPAL really detected a long-lived feature. The new data enabled the team to create a higher-quality map of the vortex and its surroundings.
Neptune’s dark vortices have exhibited surprising diversity over the years, in terms of size, shape, and stability (they meander in latitude, and sometimes speed up or slow down). They also come and go on much shorter timescales compared to similar anticyclones seen on Jupiter; large storms on Jupiter evolve over decades.

Planetary astronomers hope to better understand how dark vortices originate, what controls their drifts and oscillations, how they interact with the environment, and how they eventually dissipate, according to UC Berkeley doctoral student Joshua Tollefson, who was recently awarded a prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship to study Neptune’s atmosphere. Measuring the evolution of the new dark vortex will extend knowledge of both the dark vortices themselves, as well as the structure and dynamics of the surrounding atmosphere.

The team, led by Wong, also included the OPAL team (Wong, Amy Simon, and Glenn Orton), UC Berkeley collaborators (Imke de Pater, Joshua Tollefson, and Katherine de Kleer), Heidi Hammel (AURA), Statia Luszcz-Cook (AMNH), Ricardo Hueso and Agustin Sánchez-Lavega (Universidad del Pais Vasco), Marc Delcroix (Société Astronomique de France), Larry Sromovsky and Patrick Fry (University of Wisconsin), and Christoph Baranec (University of Hawaii).


Five new rocky planets discovered

MORE THAN THREE-QUARTERS of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft have sizes ranging from that of Earth to that of Neptune, which is nearly four times as big as Earth. Such planets dominate the galactic census but are not represented in our own Solar System. Astronomers don’t know how they form or if they are made of rock, water or gas.

The Kepler team has today reported on four years of ground-based telescope follow-up observations targeting Kepler’s exoplanet systems (ie. planets beyond our Solar System) at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington. These observations confirm the numerous Kepler discoveries are indeed planets and yield mass measurements of these enigmatic worlds that vary between Earth and Neptune in size.

Included in the findings are five new rocky planets ranging in size from ten to eighty percent larger than Earth. Two of the new rocky worlds, dubbed Kepler-99b and Kepler-406b, are both forty percent larger in size than Earth and have a density similar to lead. The planets orbit their host stars in less than five and three days respectively, making these worlds too hot for life as we know it.

Wobbly measurements
A major component of the follow-up observations were Doppler measurements of the planets’ host stars. The team measured the wobble of the host star, caused by the gravitational tug on the star exerted by the orbiting planet. That measured wobble reveals the mass of the planet: the higher the mass of the planet, the greater the gravitational tug on the star and hence the greater the wobble.

“This marvellous avalanche of information about the mini-Neptune planets is telling us about their core-envelope structure, not unlike a peach with its pit and fruit,” said Geoff Marcy, professor of astronomy at University of California, Berkeley who led the summary analysis of the high-precision Doppler study. “We now face daunting questions about how these enigmas formed and why our Solar System is devoid of the most populous residents in the galaxy.”

Using one of the world’s largest ground-based telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, scientists confirmed 41 of the exoplanets discovered by Kepler and determined the masses of 16. With the mass and diameter in-hand, scientists could immediately determine the density of the planets, characterising them as rocky or gaseous, or mixtures of the two.

These density measurements dictate the possible chemical composition of these strange, but ubiquitous planets. The density measurements suggest that those planets smaller than Neptune – or mini-Neptunes – have a rocky core, but the proportions of hydrogen, helium and hydrogen-rich molecules in the envelope surrounding that core vary dramatically, with some having no envelope at all.

One step closer
A complementary technique used to determine mass, and in turn density of a planet, is by measuring the transit timing variations (TTV). Much like the gravitational force of a planet on its star, neighbouring planets can tug on one another causing one planet to accelerate and another planet to decelerate along its orbit.

Ji-Wei Xie of the University of Toronto, used TTV to validate 15 pairs of Kepler planets ranging from Earth-sized to a little larger than Neptune. Xie measured masses of 30 planets thereby adding to the compendium of planetary characteristics for this new class of planets.

“Kepler’s primary objective is to determine the prevalence of planets of varying sizes and orbits. Of particular interest to the search for life is the prevalence of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre. “But the question in the back of our minds is: are all planets the size of Earth rocky? Might some be scaled-down versions of icy Neptunes or steamy water worlds? What fraction are recognisable as kin of our rocky, terrestrial globe?”

The mass measurements produced by Doppler and TTV hint that a large fraction of planets smaller than 1.5 times the radius of Earth may be comprised of the rocky silicates, iron, nickel and magnesium that are found in the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) here in the Solar System.

Armed with this type of information, scientists will be able to turn the fraction of stars harbouring Earth-sizes planets into the fraction of stars harbouring bona-fide rocky planets. And that’s a step closer to finding a habitable environment beyond the Solar System.

TOP IMAGE…Astronomers have used ground-based telescopes to do follow-up observations of exoplanets detected by NASA’s Kepler space observatory. They’ve confirmed that many are between the Earth and Neptune in size. (Artist’s impression courtesy of NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech / Tim Pyle.)

LOWER IMAGE…Artist’s impression of several exoplanets orbiting a red star. Courtesy ESO.