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Exoplanets

Introduction

An exoplanet or extrasolar planet is a planet outside the Solar System. The first confirmation of an exoplanet detection occurred in 1992. As of 1 October 2019, there are 4,118 confirmed exoplanets in 3,063 systems, with 669 systems having more than one planet.

Drawing with 4 smallest planets of Kepler-90 larger than smallest planets in solar system, 4 largest planets similar size.
Figure 1. Artist's conception of exoplanets in Kepler-90 system compared to solar system.

Poster showing fictional party goers on exoplanet.
Figure 2. A NASA travel poster "spoof." Discovered in October 2013 using direct imaging, PSO J318.5-22 belongs to a special class of planets called rogue, or free-floating, planets. Wandering alone in the galaxy, they do not orbit a parent star. Not much is known about how these planets come to exist, but scientists theorize that they may be either failed stars or planets ejected from very young systems after an encounter with another planet. These rogue planets glow faintly from the heat of their formation. Once they cool down, they will be dancing in the dark.

 

There are many methods of detecting exoplanets. Transit photometry and Doppler spectroscopy have found the most, but these methods suffer from a clear observational bias favoring the detection of planets near the star; thus, 85% of the exoplanets detected as of 2019 are inside the tidal locking zone. In several cases, multiple planets have been observed around a star. About 1 in 5 Sun-like stars have an "Earth-sized" planet in the habitable zone. Assuming there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, it can be hypothesized that there are 11 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way, rising to 40 billion if planets orbiting the numerous red dwarfs are included.

There are planets that are so near to their star that they take only a few hours to orbit and there are others so far away that they take thousands of years to orbit. Some are so far out that it is difficult to tell whether they are gravitationally bound to the star. Almost all of the planets detected so far are within the Milky Way. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that extragalactic planets, exoplanets farther away in galaxies beyond the local Milky Way galaxy, may exist. The nearest exoplanet is Proxima Centauri b, located 4.2 light-years (1.3 parsecs) from Earth and orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun.

The discovery of exoplanets has intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life. There is special interest in planets that orbit in a star's habitable zone, where it is possible for liquid water, a prerequisite for life on Earth, to exist on the surface. The study of planetary habitability also considers a wide range of other factors in determining the suitability of a planet for hosting life.

Besides exoplanets, there are also rogue planets, which do not orbit any star. These tend to be considered as a separate category, especially if they are gas giants, in which case they are often counted as sub-brown dwarfs, like WISE 0855−0714. The rogue planets in the Milky Way possibly number in the billions (or more). [Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exoplanet]

Poster showing fictional tourists on an exoplanet looking out of a vehicle window at a city.
Figure 3. Another NASA travel poster "spoof." Some 40 light-years from Earth, a planet called TRAPPIST-1e offers a heart-stopping view: brilliant objects in a red sky, looming like larger and smaller versions of our own moon. But these are no moons. They are other Earth-sized planets in a spectacular planetary system outside our own. These seven rocky worlds huddle around their small, dim, red star, like a family around a campfire. Any of them could harbor liquid water, but the planet shown here, fourth from the TRAPPIST-1 star, is in the habitable zone, the area around the star where liquid water is most likely to be detected. This system was revealed by the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetIsmals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

Resources

Resource Type
Trusted Partner Content
News Article Scientific American
April 24, 2019
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News Article EurekAlert!
March 18, 2020
In a new study published in EPJ D. Tasko Grozdanov from Serbia and Evgeni Solov'ev from Russia describe the configuration and energy levels of antiprotonic helium that can potentially be produced by colliding slow antiprotons with ordinary helium at CERN. Read more
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News Article EurekAlert!
March 11, 2020
Using data from the Dark Energy Survey, researchers have found and cataloged more than 300 minor planets beyond Neptune, including more than 100 new discoveries. This updated catalog of trans-Neptunian objects, and the methods used to find them, could aid in future searches for undiscovered planets in the far reaches of the solar system. Read more
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News Article EurekAlert!
June 10, 2019
CI Tau b is a paradoxical planet, but new research about its mass, brightness and the carbon monoxide in its atmosphere is starting to answer questions about how a planet so large could have formed around a star that's only 2 million years old. Read more
Trusted Partner Content
News Article Scientific American
December 31, 2018
A few brief reports about international science and technology from Germany to Rwanda, including one on the discovery of the world's oldest known brewery, discovered in Israel. Read more
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News Article Science News
September 30, 2019
The authors of ‘Imagined Life’ rely on science to sketch out what kind of organisms might exist on exoplanets. Read more
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News Article Scientific American
May 6, 2019
Researchers want to outfit air conditioners with carbon capture technology. Christopher Intagliata reports.  Read more
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News Article Scientific American
September 19, 2019
Communities of microorganisms play a key role in human health. Can they also help provide solutions for a sustainable future? Read more
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News Article EurekAlert!
August 6, 2018
Before NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) started science operations on July 25, 2018, the planet hunter sent back a stunning sequence of serendipitous images showing the motion of a comet. Read more
Trusted Partner Content
News Article EurekAlert!
September 12, 2019
Astronomers using one of the most advanced radio telescopes have discovered a rare molecule in the dust and gas disc around a young star -- and it may provide an answer to one of the conundrums facing astronomers. Read more
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