By the time the NASA Kepler mission failed in 2013, it had gathered evidence that there were at least 962 exoplanets in 76 stellar systems, not to mention the final word is awaited on 2,900 more. In the four years it had operated it far surpassed its envisioned science goals. The 12 gigabytes of data it had transmitted home contained a wealth of information on different kinds of planets, big and small, hot and cold, orbiting a similar variety of stars.
Sifting through it, scientists have found many insightful patterns, many of which evade a scientific explanation and keep the cosmos as wonderful as it has been. In the most recent instance of this, astronomers from Harvard, Berkeley and Honolulu have unearthed a connection between some exoplanets’ size, density and prevalence.
They have found that most exoplanets with radii 1.5 times more than Earth’s are not rocky. Around or below this cut-off, they were rocky and could hypothetically support human life. Larger exoplanets – analogous to Neptune and heavier – have rocky cores surrounded by thick gaseous envelopes with atmospheric pressures too high for human survival.
“We do not know why rocky planetary cores begin to support thick gaseous layers at about 1.5 Earth radii as opposed to 1.2 or 1.8 Earth radii, and as the community answers this question, we will learn something about planet formation,” said Lauren Weiss, a third year graduate student at UC Berkeley.
She is the second author on the group’s paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 26. The first author is Geoff Marcy the “planet hunter”, who holds the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair for SETI at UC Berkeley.
Not necessarily the bigger the heavier
The group analyzed the masses and radii of more than 60 exoplanets, 33 of which were discussed in the paper. “Many of the planets our study straddle the transition between rocky planets and planets with gaseous envelopes,” Weiss explained. The analysis was narrowed down to planets with orbital periods of five to 100 days, which correspond to orbital distances of 0.05 to 0.42 astronomical units. One astronomical unit (AU) is the distance between Earth and the Sun.
Fully 26.2% of such planets, which orbit Sun-like stars, have radii 1 to 1.41 times that of Earth, denoted as R⊕, and have an orbital distance of around 0.4 AU. Accounting for planets with radii up to 4R⊕, their prevalence jumps to more than half. In other words, one in every two planets orbiting a Sun-like star was bound to be just as wide to eight times as wide as Earth.
And in this set, the connection between exoplanet density and radius showed itself. The astronomers found that the masses of Earth-sized exoplanets steadily increased until their radii touched 1.5R⊕, and then dropped off after. In fact, this relationship was so consistent with their data that Weiss & co. were able to tease out a relation between density and radius for 0-1.5R⊕ exoplanets – one they found held with Mercury Venus and Earth, too.
Density = 2.32 + 3.19R/R⊕
So, the astronomers were able to calculate an Earth-like planet’s density from its radius, and vice versa, using this equation. Beyond 1.5R⊕, however, the density dropped off as the planet accrued more hydrogen, helium and water vapor. At 1.5R⊕, they found the maximum density to be around 7.6 g/cm3, against Earth’s 5.5 g/cm3.
The question of density plays a role in understanding where life could arise in the universe. While it could form on any planet orbiting any kind of star, we can’t also forget that Earth is the only planet on which life has been found to date. It forms an exemplary case.
There’s nothing inbetween
Figuring out how many Earth-like planets, possibly around Sun-like stars, there could be in the galaxy could therefore help us understand what the chances are like to find life outside the Solar System.
And because Earth leads the way, we think “humans would best be able to explore planets with rocky surfaces.” In the same way, Weiss added, “we would better be able to explore, or colonize, the rocky planets smaller than 1.5 Earth radii.”
This is where the astronomers hit another stumbling block. While data from Kepler showed that most exoplanets were small and in fact topped off at 4R⊕, the Solar System doesn’t have any such planets. That is, there is no planet orbiting the Sun which is heavier than Earth but lighter than Neptune.
“It beats all of us,” Weiss said. “We don’t know why our Solar System didn’t make sub-Neptunes.” The Kepler mission is also responsible for not providing information on this front. “At four years, it lasted less time than a single orbit of Jupiter, 11 years, and so it can’t answer questions about the frequency of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune analogs,” Weiss explained.
It seems the cosmos has lived up to its millennia-old promise, then, as more discoveries trickle in on the back of yet more questions. We will have to keep looking skyward for answers.