The Mysteries of a Circumstellar Spiral and the London Fog

A few days ago we posted a new paper on arXiv on the spectacular spiral in the HD 100453 system. The new paper, led by Steward astronomy graduate student Kevin Wagner, settles the question of the origin of the enigmatic spiral arms.

A near-infrared color-composite image of the young binary star system, in which the gravitational pull of the fainter, lower-mass companion (seen on the left) drives two beautiful spiral arms in the gas-rich disk of the primary star. From Wagner et al. 2018

 

This rare two-armed spiral structure was discovered by Kevin – as a first-year graduate student – back in 2015 (and covered in a popular press release) using the SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system on the Very Large Telescope in Chile, in observations carried out in our Scorpion Survey. Strikingly, the spiral arms are about 40 times as long as the Earth-Sun separation — that is, longer than the Neptune-Sun separation in the solar system.

The spiral arms are not the only features in the system: they connect to a well-defined inner dust ring, within which there is much less dust (making this a “transition disk”). At about the location where the arms connect to the ring two darker regions are visible, which may or may not be important.

But interpreting light scattered from fine dust is always a difficult undertaking:

What do we really see on the image? Which structures are real and which are only tricks of light?

In Monet’s paintings of foggy London, tricks of light hide most of the buildings and we can recognize the city only from a few well-kown silhouettes: shapes and colors are altered and details are missing. Still, the presence of the fog itself and the change of lighting across the image in different versions of his The Houses of Parliament tell us about the scene as much as the few recognizable figures.

In The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog, 1903) Claude Monet isolated and transformed the well-known silhouette of the Parliament through the effects of the thick London fog. The soot particles that polluted London’s air were similar in size and in their effects on visibility to the particles astronomers often refer to as dust grains, although their origins and compositions differ.

Following Kevin’s discovery, the HD100453 spiral arms emerged as an immediate mystery: what process drives these structures? Explaining their presence is particularly important, because one-armed spirals are seen in an increasing number of disks and a few others now also sport two-armed disks. The arms may mark planets hidden by the dust — just like the buildings of London in Monet’s mysterious fog — or may just be a trick of light? It was proposed that shadows from in the inner, faster-orbiting disks may be projected to the outer disk, creating the illusion of structures (like the larger dark gaps where the spiral arms join the rings, and elsewhere), where none exists. Or, such shadows may also change the temperature of the outer disk (it will be cooler in the shadows), which would in turn change the overall structure of the disk, giving rise to a spiral arms as changes propagate in the disk — translating a shadow to a physical evolution in the disk.

The problem was that no one knew enough about the system to distinguish real geometry from tricks of light — multiple different proposed models could explain the arms seen in scattered light equally well, but differed in their assumptions of the underlying system architecture.

In our new study Kevin has used old and new observations of the system to constrain the orbit of the companion (a red dwarf star labeled B) over the past fourteen years.

 

 

 

 

 

Although the fourteen years is only a small fraction of the star’s orbit around the center of mass in the system, it was sufficient to constrain the plane of its orbit, which was previously unknown. Kevin then used another technique to better constrain the plane of the disk itself: as you can’t quite trust scattered light images to determine where the structures (mass) is hidden, he used longer wavelength observations from the ALMA radio interferometer array to figure out how inclined is the disk. ALMA can see through the fine dust grains and can pick up where more of the mass is located: although the images do not provide fine details, they can tell us how the disk structure is oriented.

The results are exciting: star B and the disk are orbiting in the same or nearly identical planes.

Now, with the known orientation Ruobing Dong could carry out hydrodynamical simulations of how the star and the disk would interact – even if started without spiral arms, these quickly form in the simulations and follow the morphology of the scattered light images extremely well.

These results show that no unseen planets are required to drive the spiral arms. They also provide a possible template that we may follow when interpreting other systems with spiral arms. Particularly compelling are the ones in which there is no known companion star – now, equipped with a model that reproduces a well-understood system we may be able to pinpoint the planets hiding in these disks: just like we know that the buildings of London are hiding in Monet’s paintings.

Exoplanet Postdoc Position Open

I am glad to announce a postdoctoral opportunity within the EOS/NExSS project, in my group at Steward Observatory in Tucson. We are excited to connect and compare planet formation models and their predictions to exoplanet populations; we are looking for a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in planet formation, exoplanet population studies, and/or statistical assessment of exoplanet surveys,

The review of the applications will begin on February 9, 2018.

Interested? Please see the AAS ad for more details: https://jobregister.aas.org/ad/770e6378

Contact me with any questions (apai@arizona.edu)!

Transit Spectroscopy, Biosignature Searches, and the Myth of Perfect Stars

Can we detect atmospheric biosignatures in the next two decades? Only if we can meet a major, newly-recognized challenge to our studies of exoplanet atmospheric composition.

Over the past years the Hubble Space Telescope has proven to be our most powerful tool to probe the atmospheres of transiting exoplanets: the comparison of spectra taken before and during the transits can reveal the compositions of the atmospheres. Exciting discoveries included condensate clouds, hazes, extremely efficient scatterers, molecules (water, methane, and carbon-dioxide), and atoms (sodium and potassium). Some of the most ambitious research programs are pushing this technology to levels never envisioned previously as they reach spectacularly precise measurements on increasingly small planets. This technique may even allow the detection of water vapor in the habitable zone earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system with HST and additional gases with JWST.

But underpinning these measurements is an approximation that is called in question now – in fact, one that we show is wrong for typical systems.

Astrophysicists focusing on exoplanets often assume that the planet host stars are perfect. As we show in our new paper, led by Steward Observatory graduate student Ben Rackham, this assumption is underpinning high-precision transit spectroscopy. In reality, stellar heterogeneity contaminates exoplanet transmission spectra (HST and JWST) and — unless we figure out how to correct for this effect — it will greatly limit our ability to search for biosignatures in the next two decades.

 

Because transit measurements are relative measurements stellar spectra cancels out – in the first order approximation:  the difference of a spectrum taken before transit and during transit will provide the transmission spectrum of the exoplanet atmosphere.

 

It is tempting to think that this approximation holds with infinite precision: in fact, the majority of the transit spectroscopy papers in the literature simply adopt this approximation without further considerations. This may be OK for the typical, less precise measurements, but remains a dangerous assumption for high-precision studies and for all but the least active stars.

In reality, the stellar spectrum does not cancel out in transmission spectroscopy, because the first-order approximation described above confusingly equates two different light sources: the stellar disk (the spectrum of which is observed before the transit) and the actual light source, which is just a very small fraction of the stellar disk — the projection of the transit chord onto the stellar photosphere (see figure).

Mercury’s transit in front of the Sun illustrates that even quiet stars are heterogeneous on the fine length scale of exoplanets.

Stars are not perfect: in reality, no patch of the stellar photosphere has the same exact spectrum as the stellar chord. The difference between the assumed lightsource (stellar disk) and the actual lightsource of unknown spectrum (photosphere under the chord) imprints itself onto the transmission spectrum observed.

The effect itself is not new: Some of the best published studies tried to develop a correction for the suspected stellar contamination. In doing so, almost all groups assumed a linear relation between the photometric variability of the stars and the covering fraction (basically: more variability means more spots).

In our new paper we worked with Mark Giampapa — a solar/stellar astrophysicist —  on the first comprehensive study of this effect and its impact on transit spectra and exoplanet density measurements.

This project brought about important, surprising, and concerning results.

Our team — part of the larger Earths in Other Solar Systems project — has created toy models of a star with starspots and faculae to assess the connection between stellar variability and stellar spot covering fraction; we then used state-of-the-art stellar atmospheric models to predict the stellar contamination in the transit spectra of the planets, which we then compared with atmospheric absorbers (including biosignatures) that could be detected in transmission spectra now and in the near future. Finally we also assessed the impact of the apparent size (and therefore density) of the exoplanets: could starspots lead to an apparently lower planet density (more volatiles/gaseous envelope)?

Photometric variability amplitudes are very poor tracers of stellar spot/facula coverage.

Our findings are detailed here, but the key points are:

  • The amplitude of stellar variability (photometrically determined brightness variations) that is sometimes used as a basis to argue for low spot covering fractions is an extremely poor measure of the stellar heterogeneity: the linear correlation many published papers assume is wrong in most cases.
  • Considering the actual spot covering fraction range that typical stellar variability amplitude really translates to, a much broader range of stellar contamination is possible than previously considered.
  • The contamination is not only limited to changing the slope of the spectrum (which is the effect most are aware of), but it will also introduce spectral features – especially for red dwarf host stars, whose spectra are rich in molecular features. The results are concerning: without additional information, it can be extremely difficult or downright impossible to distinguish water absorption in the star from water absorption in the planet. We find that even molecules not present in the stellar photosphere (O2 and O3) are difficult to identify given the large contamination from the star.
  • For TRAPPIST-1, currently the most exciting planetary system for transit spectroscopy studies, we predict that stellar contamination could be 4-7 times greater than the intrinsic planetary features.
  • Finally, we also show that for host stars with a larger number of spots, the planet density calculated will be too low – errors as larger as 15-25% are to be expected. The error is huge if one’s goal is to understand the possible composition of a small, mostly rocky planet; but less of a problem for hot jupiters.

Expected range of stellar contamination for M-type stars. The contamination can suppress or mimic several of the key absorbers expected from planetary atmospheres, including water and oxygen.

The stellar contamination in transit spectra can be very significant: in fact, our predictions are that the contamination levels are high enough the be present in numerous Hubble Space Telescope studies already published.

How can we recognize and distinguish stellar contamination from genuine planetary atmospheric features?

We are working on this and testing multiple ideas; multi-epoch data, high-resolution spectra, and better understanding of the spot and facula properties are likely to be part of the solution. Of course, the larger fraction of the exoplanet community thinks about this challenge, the more likely it is that we can solve the problem to inform upcoming Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope observations, which may then lead us to sampling habitable zone exo-earth atmospheres within the next five years.

Further reading: Rackham, Apai, Giampapa 2017 Astrophysical Journal, in press (arXiv)

Extrasolar Storms: Belts, Spots, and Waves in Brown Dwarfs

Our new paper came out today in Science, presenting evidence for bands, zones, spots, and waves in brown dwarfs and a model that explains well several until-now mysterious changes in the brightnesses of brown dwarfs.

Podcast: Learn more about our project from the Science Magazine’s podcast!

 

I am excited about our results because they open a new window on very fundamental processes in brown dwarfs (atmospheric circulation, heat exchanges, and cloud formation) and, at the same time, they also explain a number of past observations that puzzled brown dwarf experts. As always with brown dwarfs, the results are much more far-reaching than people often realize: brown dwarfs are excellent proxies for giant exoplanets: often what we cannot learn from giant exoplanets  we learn from brown dwarfs.

Brown dwarfs and Exoplanets: This is the decade of exoplanets, so one may wonder why are brown dwarfs important. News often describes brown dwarfs as “failed stars”, a label I find misleading: in fact, most brown dwarfs are much more similar to giant planets than to stars. What’s more, it is almost certain that the brown dwarf population contains a large number of ejected giant planets — bona fide exoplanets that were booted from their natal systems by more massive siblings. Known brown dwarfs have temperatures between 250 K to about 2,500K — completely overlapping with the temperatures of giant exoplanets; the compositions of many brown dwarfs are likely very similar or identical to many of the giant exoplanets. But most excitingly, the physical and chemical processes in brown dwarf and exoplanet atmospheres are the same; the identical processes, combined with the fact that brown dwarfs are much easier to study is the reason why we learn so much about exoplanets from brown dwarfs.

A great video summary of our results by JPL:

So, what’s new? Our study shows atmospheric circulation in brown dwarfs for the first time: it shows that brown dwarfs have bands and zones, spots, and that cloud thickness in the zones is continuously changed by atmospheric waves. We found that brown dwarfs are similar to the gas giants in the Solar System (in that they have zonal circulation) , but that they are more like Neptune and less like Jupiter (their brightness variations are driven by large-scale waves in zones rather than Great Red Spot-like storms as in Jupiter). The waves are an interesting piece of the puzzle: we see large-scale waves in the solar system planets (including Earth), but we have not yet seen waves with wavelengths similar to the entire planet — like the ones we now found in brown dwarfs.

Why is atmospheric circulation important? Atmospheric circulation — large-scale flows of air in atmospheres — is very important as it sets how heat and particles/droplets/gas are distributed in a planet. For example, in Earth atmospheric circulation (such as Hadley cells) transport heat between the warmer equatorial regions to the cool polar regions and this circulation pattern not only determines the temperature distribution, but also sets which regions on Earth are dry or rainy and how clouds form over the planet.

Morning Glory clouds in Australia are atmospheric waves rendered visible by cloud formation.

What are these waves? On a fundamental level waves are changes that propagate through a medium. For example, dropping a pebble in a lake will force the water to move away from its equilibrium  — and that change will propagate across the surface of the lake. Atmospheres have many different types of waves: for example, (gravity) waves are common and they often propagate on the interface of warm air sitting on top of cold air — these waves are invisible to us (as air is mostly transparent), but they can lead to spectacular sights when clouds highlight them. (This Berkeley meteorology class’s page gives a couple of cool examples). The two examples shown here are small waves — atmospheric circulation is driven by large-scale waves, with wavelengths that are hundreds or thousands of kilometers.

Atmospheric waves at the interface of rapidly flowing air (above) and near-stationary air (below), leading to mixing and heat transport. Photo by Benjamin Foster.

What does this tell us about exoplanets? Whatever we find in brown dwarfs should be pretty much be the same for most giant exoplanets in the galaxy — only the rare hot jupiters (very heavily irradiated by their host stars) should look different (but even for those, the underlying processes that shape their atmospheres should be the same). So, based on our results we would expect that most giant exoplanets will have zonal circulation; we should expect that their atmospheres are not homogeneous, structureless, but in fact should display large brightness variations in the infrared. We should also expect that giant waves will propagate in their atmospheres (parallel with their equators) and that these waves will change the thickness of the clouds. Our next steps will be to figure out what processes drive these waves (probably some combination of heat transport, winds, and rotation) and to improve the cloud models — the same cloud models that are used to interpret exoplanet atmospheres, too. Importantly, we also learned that the atmospheres of gaseous exoplanets should have regions with very different appearance: where the clouds are thinner or lower, we can see into the deeper, hotter atmosphere. This should be an important warning for most current studies that use one-dimensional atmospheric models: in other worlds they assume that every bit of the planet is like the rest.

I am also excited about our results because they demonstrate how much we can learn from unresolved data — basically, from a single pixel. This is crucial as this is all we are going to get for exo-earths: we will not be able to build large enough telescopes to take detailed images of the surfaces of exoplanets — but we will still be able to learn about their atmospheres (and surfaces) from time-resolved observations!

Near-infrared images show bands on Jupiter. Brighter regions have thinner cloud cover, allowing radiation to escape more easily from its hotter interior.

How did we do it? We used the Spitzer Space Telescope and watched the brown dwarfs rotate. As they rotate their brightness changes: when a brighter spot rotates in the visible hemisphere, Spitzer will see the brightening. The brown dwarfs we observe take between 1.5 and 13 hours to turn around fully: we used Spitzer to observe 32 complete rotations of each brown dwarf. This allowed us not only to map the cloud distribution, but also how it changes from rotation to rotation and also over longer timescales: our observations were following the brown dwarfs for more than a year. We then used a novel computer algorithm developed by my colleague Theodora Karalidi to figure out how the brown dwarfs look and how the clouds change. Another team member, Mark Marley from NASA Ames, used a different set of models (cloud structure and light propagating through the clouds) to help figure out how high in the atmosphere are the clouds we see. Initially, we expected that the changes we see are driven by Great Red Spot-like stable features (the GRS has been seen in Jupiter for more than 300 years) — but the brightnesses of the brown dwarfs changed way too much to be explained by spots, Waves, however, worked extremely well. We then realized that the waves and bands not only explain our own data, but a humber of other puzzling findings reported by other teams. We had an excellent team of experts who all contributed different pieces to solving this puzzle.

Very large and very rapid changes in the lightcurve of 2M1324. From Apai et al. (2017, Science).

What’s next? One of our next steps is to expand this study to directly imaged giant exoplanets, which will allow us to explore how cloud properties and dynamics change with the mass of the objects — this cannot be done well with the sensitive, but low-resolution Spitzer Space Telescope. We are using the Hubble Space Telescope in our program Cloud Atlas, to prepare coarse cloud maps for about a dozen or so cool brown dwarfs and exoplanets.

 

 

Exoplanets: Headlines from the Future

The field of exoplanet is exploding: on a typical day about a dozen new peer-reviewed exoplanet studies are published and most weeks see announcements of multiple discoveries: new results range from the compositions and structures of exoplanet atmospheres through new findings on exoplanet formation and exoplanet population to exciting discoveries of the smallest, coolest, or lowest-mass planets. Exoplanets all over the headlines. But what discoveries will be in the headlines ten and twenty years from now?

Surprisingly, this question is very important now. It is important because most discoveries today are made by telescopes that were designed and built ten to twenty years ago – and what discoveries we may make in the future depends on what telescopes, instruments, and space missions we are building now. Different telescopes and observational techniques are great for answering different questions: no telescope can do it all.

Karl Stapelfeldt, NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program Chief Scientist, with a possible cover from a future New York Times.

So, what questions we will be able to answer in the future depends on what telescopes we build now, which in turn depends on the questions we think are going to be important.

I posted yesterday on the preprint server arXiv a report we worked on with a dedicated group of exoplanet experts and which we recently delivered it to the NASA EXOPAG Executive Committee and to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee (more on the abbreviations at the bottom of the page)*. The study builds on input from the exoplanet community to identify the most interesting science questions that we may be able to study in the future with direct imaging missions – that is, space telescopes that can directly image exoplanets (separating their light from that of their host stars).

To be clear, our report does not determine or advise NASA on which missions we should build – that will be done by multiple other committees – but reports on what science questions the community thinks are the most important and potentially solvable questions. Our study informs and guides the community and NASA (and various observatories and organizations) when deciding on future exoplanet strategies.

So, what do astronomers think about the future of exoplanet research?

Even though we have learned a lot about exoplanets in the past decade, it is clear that we are just scratching the surface of the universe of amazing, exotic, and surprising worlds. Reflecting this our group started with a huge list of questions – close to a hundred of them, everything we wanted to know about exoplanets. Too many questions to be useful, but through discussions and analysis we weeded out questions that seemed to be intractable even in the best foreseeable future. This cut down our list, but still left us with too many questions. After lengthy discussions we were able to combine many of the questions into more general or fundamental questions, which again led to a shorter list.

Then the work really started: we needed to understand which of our questions will be answered in the next decade or so by telescopes already being built (such as NASA’s JWST, TESS, or the 30m-class ground-based telescopes) — none of those questions were interesting for our report. With the truly amazing work being done on exoplanets now, many of the obvious questions on our list will, in fact, be answered by 2030.

This process left us with high-level, important, but often very tough questions that will not be answered with any of the telescopes currently existing or being built. They will be the big questions in   a few decades. These are the questions that require truly powerful new telescope(s).

Many of the questions have to do with habitable worlds, which is not surprising. Still, some focus on gas exoplanets and some on ice giants (think cold or hot exo-neptunes) or super-earths. (In our report we did not focus on directly searching for and characterizing extrasolar life, because it was being addressed in a parallel report, SAG16 – but we covered how habitable worlds can be characterized).

The nine questions we identified naturally fell in three categories: Questions in Category A  aimed at exploring planetary systems: what are their structures, components, how do they form and evolve, what combinations of planets and planetesimal belts are common, etc. Although much progress will be made on these questions over the next two decades by telescopes being built now, we found that no telescope will be able to give us the complete picture: some will detect only close-in planets, others only dust disks, yet others only planets far out.

Questions in Category B are questions about individual planets: what are their atmospheres made of, do they have clouds and hazes and if so, where do those come from? Which of the (small) planets are truly habitable, i.e., that they have liquid water on their surfaces?

Finally, Questions in Category C aim to understand how planets work. These were some of the toughest questions, especially those about rocky planets. These worlds are the most difficult to detect, yet they can be so diverse (we think): just consider how different Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Earth are! In the future we will want to know not only how these planets look now, but why — how did they evolve to be the worlds they are. Unlike massive gas giant planets, whose strong gravity will hold on to pretty much all the stuff they formed with, puny rocky planets often lose their atmospheres (Earth and Mars definitely did).

This study has been fun: over one and a half year we held virtual and physical meetings to explore ideas and methods for exoplanet characterization; I found the list of questions we converged to to be really exciting.

Perhaps the most important questions are, however, those that directly aid our search for life on other planets. It is clear that the search for life around other stars is going to be with one of the most fundamentally important experiments ever conducted; but it is also clear that it is going to be extremely difficult. Not only is it technically difficult to detect the gases in the atmospheres of earth-like planets that could reveal life, but it is similarly difficult to interpret them. In fact, none of the atmospheric signatures we think we could detect in exoplanets would allow us to conclude that we found life unless we have a pretty good understanding of the planet. This is because all biosignature gases we could possibly detect could also be produced by some odd geological or atmospheric processes — all without life. To exclude those “false positives”, we must know the worlds in detail.

Questions in Category C aim exactly at this: Is there a geological activity on a planet? How did it evolve? What processes set is atmospheric circulation?

Many of the tough, but also very exciting questions go beyond astrophysics and connect to planetary sciences, geophysics, geochemistry, and atmospheric sciences: fortunately, we could draw on multi-disciplinary expertise from the NASA NExSS group to explore these questions.

Our report was a community effort – we received input from a large number of exoplanet scientists who volunteered their time and expertise to explore what the future should bring. For me, it has been a thrilling experience to work with such a great team and to try to figure out if and how we could in explore oceans, volcanism, climate, and other exotic properties of exoplanets in the future – for all the exciting discoveries we are making today, I am sure that the future will be even cooler.

Of course, we can be sure of one thing: With all the exciting questions we can identify, there will be many surprises and unexpected discoveries.

So, even though our report helps us to guess some of the topics in which future exoplanet discoveries will be made – I, for one, will surely follow closely the exoplanet news even twenty years from now.

Mont Blanc, Slopes, Skiers, and the HST/WFC3 Ramp Effect

Hanging out at the Servoz Train Station in the French Alps

Hanging out at the Servoz Train Station in the French Alps

It is a beautiful, sunny, but cool day in the little village of Servoz in the French Alps: surrounded by breathtaking snow-capped mountains – among them the legendary Mont Blanc – I am sitting on a tiny railway station waiting for the little red mountain train that will carry me out of the valley. With still an hour to go before the train I am hoping that getting out will be easier than getting in: this was the first time a lecture I was about to give had to be postponed due to an avalanche.
I had spent five amazing days here, three of which at the Les Houches School for Physics, where Nicolas Iro, Francois Forget, and Valerio Lucarini organized an outstanding school on planetary circulation. This was definitely a school to remember – great lectures, lots of discussions, great food and skiing opportunities allowed by the long mid-day breaks, and fun evening discussions, all set in a picturesque Alpine setting. This was also an important meeting for me personally because we announced here the publication of our new study which, I believe, is an important step in exoplanet characterization with the Hubble Space Telescope. It may even be important for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. Our study offers a solution to the infamous “ramp effect”. This vaguely understood effect has been plaguing all Hubble Space Telescope observations — among them some of the most beautiful data on exoplanet atmospheres — ever since the instrument was installed in the memorable 2009 Hubble Servicing Mission 4.
Hubble was never designed to do exoplanets: it really was built to be a cosmology machine, mankind’s most advanced telescope (for science) peering into the depths of the universe and — due to the fact that the speed of light is finite — also to the depth of time. Its sharp vision has revealed galaxies back to about one billion years after the Big Bang (or about 12.5 billion years ago). Yet, somewhat paradoxically, that sharp vision is not enough to explore planets even around the closest stars. Planets orbit their bright host stars so closely that even Hubble’s resolution and image quality are not enough to distinguish the light of the planets from the light of their host stars. But that is not the end of the story for Hubble: as a testament to human ingenuity, different teams of astronomers realized that for some systems observing brightness changes in time can help separate the light of the planet from that of the star. Soon after different techniques popped up that used this idea: from changes in the star’s brightness we are now able to deduce when a planet passes in front of its host star (planetary transit) and from precise measurements of the level of dimming in different colors we can start figuring out what the atmosphere is made of (if it contains water vapor, for example, the planet will appear larger at the wavelengths where light can be absorbed by water than at wavelengths where it can’t). For other systems, observations showed that very close in and very hot Jupiter-like planets – as they orbit their host stars – will add varying levels of extra light to the pixel where the star’s light is collected. With a very hot dayside, these planets are very bright and depending on how much of their bright dayside we see (in different parts of their orbits) the extra light will vary. This allowed astronomers to create the first crude maps of hot jupiters, a spectacular result from the last decade. This is now an unexpected but booming field of discovery and results from planets received visibility and generated excitement on par with the exciting cosmology results. And this was just a beginning – exoplanet programs more ambitious than ever are being executed on Hubble.
Even with constant illumination HST's WFC3 detector does not show a flat line but a hook-like pattern known as the "ramp effect". A major challenge for precise time-resolved observations required by exoplanet observations.

Even with constant illumination HST’s WFC3 detector does not show a flat line but a hook-like pattern known as the “ramp effect”. A major challenge for precise time-resolved observations required by exoplanet observations. From Zhou et al. 2017

But there was one problem that continued to annoy astronomers, continued to limit HST’s accuracy for these measurements. It led to both some unreliable results and to forcing astronomers to discard large amounts of precious Hubble time. The problem became known as “the hook” or the “ramp effect”. Although HST exoplanet programs rely on extracting tiny changes in time, Hubble – simply put – will see all stars change regardless of whether there are planets around them. Measuring a typical star’s brightness with Hubble – which should yield a precisely flat line – will instead result in a funny hook-shaped light curve: a shape that will be different for each star and even for each Hubble orbit observations of the same star! This effect is typically 1.5% – it is small for most other studies with Hubble, but huge for exoplanets where we are after much tinier effects. How can we then use Hubble to map clouds on other planets if even stars appear to change?
The Les Houches school had many participants who have been developing impressive models for how exotic exoplanet atmospheres should behave – and compared their model predictions to mostly data from Hubble, most of which was affected by – to different levels – by the infamous ramps. Therefore, in my lecture I decided to highlight both the problem and the solution we found for it.

To explain how this works, let me tell you more about tourists in the Alps. After the school ended on Friday I stayed for the weekend in Les Houches and, following Alain Leger’s advice, I used Saturday to go up to one of the highest peaks – Aiguille du Midi (3,842m), which offered incredible views of the Chamonix valley. I took a thrilling cable car ride up to the top – a whopping 2,807-meter ascent in just about forty minutes!

Moonrise and Aiguille du Midi with its astonishing viewtower

Moonrise and Aiguille du Midi with its astonishing viewtower

On top of the peak is a crazy tower – it seems small from below (see the photo with the moonrise that I took from the village of Les Houches) but standing on top of it is a majestic and humbling experience. At the top of the tower is a viewing terrace with one of the most beautiful and panoramic views I have ever seen. Standing on the terrace on top of a ten-story-high needle-like tower carefully balancing on a 100 meter-high cliff, buffeted by strong, icy winds, and blinded by the bright, untamed sun of the high altitudes, I can all but wonder about the raw power of nature. Gigantic mountains and majestic peaks all around  – among them Mont Blanc (4,810m), Dome du Gouter (4,304m), Mont Maudit, Aiguille de Verte (4,121m). I went up on a good day but the low-level of oxygen (only 45% of that at sea level), the high wind, the sun, and the brightness of the snow offered a glimpse of what it may be like to try to climb one of these stairs (although the only climb I did was the stairs to cafeteria, one of the highest in Europe).
The peaks of Les Drus (3754m)

The peaks of Les Drus (3754m) and Aigulle Verte (4121 m)

Dozens of skiers traveled with me on the cable car from Chamonix to the top of the mountain: most equipped not only with skis but with ice axes, ropes, and climbing harness. I suspected that their goal was not the cafeteria but to ski down from the top, which must be an incredible (and seemingly dangerous) experience.
From the peak I could watch these skiers; holding on to chains and inching on top of an impossibly steep cliff to reach the slightly gentler slope that does not end in a thousand meter free fall. Then they started, one by one, their descent – following a gradient in gravitational potential energy.
Skiers in the Alps - starting from almost 4,000 meters they will ski down to Chamonix.

Skiers in the Alps – starting from almost 4,000 meters they will ski down to Chamonix.

Chamonix valley - surrounded by majestic peaks.

Chamonix valley – surrounded by majestic peaks.

Interestingly and unknown to the skiers, they follow a similar pattern – for a very similar reason — to what we have seen in the HST data.
Imagine now that you want to figure out how many people are brought up to the mountain top by the cable cars by counting the skiers that arrive back to Chamonix. You could determine that, say 50%, of the people on average will ski (while the rest of us enjoy the view and a glass of French wine); so you would know that for every person you count at the bottom there was – on average – another one that went up. That is easy. However, if you were to count the people arriving to the bottom via ski – right after the arrival of the first cable car – you would see first only a few arriving, then more and more, until the number of skiers arriving each minute reaches an approximately constant value. If you plot the number of skiers arriving in 5-minute chunks of time, you may get a curve that is similar to what HST measures when it observes a star of constant brightness. You may wonder why do you see fewer skiers first, then more skier a bit later, even though the cable cars run precisely on schedule and they are always packed to full capacity.
View from Aiguille du Midi
The solution for both skiers and for HST has to do with what happens to them after departure and before arrival. Experienced skiers can ski all the way down; they start one by one and arrive roughly the same amount of time later than they started. But some skiers – perhaps the less experienced or less lucky – will fall, often hitting obstacles covered in snow. Recovering from a fall could be easy or – if the skier hit a bad obstacle – could take a longer time. With many skiers going down, some of those hidden obstacles will be visible as skiers will be trying to stand up and recover from the fall: as long as a skier is stuck at an obstacle, other skiers will easily see and avoid those.
If you start observing the arrival of the first skiers in the morning, those that arrive first are the ones who did not fall – then you start seeing skiers arrived who started early, but fell once. Just by counting the skiers’ arrival rate you may think that cable car is not bringing up skier at a constant rate – but if you look carefully and you understand the pattern, you can figure out how many obstacles are there and what is the chance that a skier hits an obstacle.
In our paper – led by University of Arizona graduate student Yifan Zhou – we proposed a model in which HST’s detector is like a slope with hidden obstacles (traps). When the detector is illuminated — say, by a bright star — electric charges will be freed that will travel in the detector (helped by an electrical potential difference) until they are detected. However, if a charge hits an obstacle, which are most likely imperfections in the detector, they can get trapped and it will take time until they can find their way out of the traps, leading to their delayed arrival. Yifan has done a great job in translating this idea into a set of equations and then went on to show that this works perfectly for many different HST datasets! It is an exciting result that was accepted to the Astronomical Journal (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2017arXiv170301301Z) and which we are already using to revisit some of the most interesting HST exoplanet observations.
It seems to work so well that, who knows, one day we may even use it to figure out how many people ski down from the Aiguille du Midi peak.
Eventually, the little red train did come and is taking me to the next adventure – the UK Exoplanet Community meeting. Scotland, here I come!
 Daniel Apai at Aiguille du Midi

The Mystery of Sedona’s Red Rocks

Cathedral Rock, Sedona

Cathedral Rock, Sedona

Just got back from majestic Sedona, Arizona, where my family and I spent Thanksgiving. Sedona is a  charming and crazy amalgam of spectacular geology, amazing Fall foliage, exciting restaurants, and an eclectic mix of new age shops and centers. Believers of aura photos, energy vortices, and natural healing flock from all over the country to the countless psychic and supernatural shops in this beautiful town. Sedona may be infamous for its fortunetellers but deservedly famous for its amazing rock formations, which provided the backdrop for many Western movies, with stars from John Wayne to Clark Gable filming there.

Sedona’s rocks are also exciting for anyone interested in Earth’s past as they provide spectacular and rare insights into the Permian period (299 to 251 million years ago) when the Pangea supercontinent converged. At the time of Pangea, all continents on Earth joined together: one could have walked from the Northern American plate to the Australian, African, or even to the Antarctic plates.

Sedona and the soft rocks of the Supai Formation (red), below the young Coconino sandstone. Daniel Apai.

Sedona and the soft rocks of the Supai Formation (red), below the young Coconino sandstone. Daniel Apai.

Today, the rock formations cut across about 2,000 feet of Permian deposits: they consist of beautifully exposed wind-deposited (eolian) and coastal deposits. The amazing dark red rock layers that surround Sedona are part of the Supai Group: these interbedded layers have been deposited in the early Permian, when the Colorado plateau has been partly covered by an inland sea and a large desert. The inland sea has extended and receded many times during the early Permian; every time it receded the desert expanded and giant sand dunes covered the region that once was occupied by the sea. The shallow sea and the dunes left deposits that are different in color and deposit grain size; these layers of alternating colors make up the Supai group (seen as the mostly reddish, layered rocks in the photos). On top of the Supai group is the whitish/grayish Coconino Formation – a  younger, thick sandstone layer, deposited in the mid-Permian, in giant wind-blown dune fields (such locations are also known as erg, Arabic for sea of sand).

The soft red sandstone Supai group is easily sculpted by wind and rain erosion; harder sections of the Coconino formation on top of the red sandstone can protect somewhat the underlying the softer rocks, leading to the characteristic columns and spires typical to Sedona.

Although I have been to Sedona many times in the past, I somehow missed the Slide Rock State Park. This is a great location where flash floods have cut across the soft Supai sandstone and the creek now hosts a fast stream with beautiful pools — in the summer crowded with bathing families, but pleasantly serene in the Fall.

Ancient coastal and wind deposits surround Sedona.

Ancient coastal and wind deposits surround Sedona.

I may have missed the opportunity to have my aura photograph taken or to learn about my future from a Sedona fortuneteller, I can certainly understand the sense of magic this spectacular and serene scenery invokes in visitor – although for me, the true magic is not the mist in the crystal ball but knowing a bit about the incredible and distant past these majestic rock formation witnessed.

Sources:

[1] A Guide to the Geology of the Sedona and Oak Creek Area

[2] Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau

 

Whales

I always found whales fascinating and after a recent workshop in Seattle, WA, I jumped on a whale-watching boat. It was great fun – we have seen a pair of humpback whales and a fin whale, all set in an amazing landscape.

 

 

 

Climate Stability and a Hike along a Triassic Coral Reef

The breathtaking white-gray peaks in the Italian Alps. Photo by D. Apai

The breathtaking white-gray peaks in the Italian Alps.

After two hours of hike up on a rocky trail in the Italian Alps, finally I stand at an elevation just above 2,500 meters, staring at a breathtaking and unique mountain range, the Dolomites, that holds an exciting clue to the habitability of our planet.

One of the many streams along an Alpine trail.

One of the many streams along an Alpine trail. Photo by D. Apai

With gigantic sharp white-gray peaks emerging from the lush green of Alpine meadows, these mountains rise where the African continental plate has been slamming violently into the European plate for millions of years, forcing rocks up thousands of meters  — and giving birth to the geologically young Alps.

In a trip zig-zagging Europe — visiting observatories, universities, and workshops — I stopped briefly in South Tirol for a few hikes. The most picturesque of them took me up to the Three Peaks of Lavaredo (or Tre Cime di Lavaredo), three 3,000m-high peaks, one of the gems of the Alps. Dotted by rifugi (mostly little huts, but at the easier trails often with nice cafes) the trails are popular among both tourists and locals. They offer an incredible view ascending towards the peaks, before joining an old network of high-altitude Alpine hiking trails, many of which take a week to complete.

Alpine flowers in the Dolomites. Photo by D. Apai

Alpine flowers in the Dolomites. Photo by D. Apai

The Dolomites are a unique mountain range within the Alps: their composition and history is different from any other in the Alps. They also hold an exciting clue to the process that keeps our planet habitable. Named after a relatively rare form and unusually stable form of carbonate rocks, dolomite, the mountain range’s unique color and composition was noted long ago and, for some time, posed one of the mysteries of geology. Now we know that the majestic dolomite layers in the Dolomite mountains are — amazingly — the work of tiny organisms: it is a very thick layer of ancient coral reefs. During part of the Triassic period (about 255-199 million years ago) the region was part of a shallow sea, which was slowly pulled deeper and deeper. But corals, only capable of living in the upper photic zone of the sea (where enough light is present for photosynthesis), kept on building their reefs higher and higher, managing to always keep the top layer of the coral reef close to the sea surface. With the sea floor sinking and the coral reef growing higher, these tiny animals constructed one of the giant carbonate deposits of the Triassic period.

As most geological periods, the Triassic also did not end well: in fact, it ended with the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, one of the greatest extinctions known, which eradicated about 50% of the known marine species. This extinction — occuring just before the Pangea super-continent began to break apart — paved the way for dinosaurs to become the dominant land animals in the Jurassic period that followed. The giant coral reefs of the Dolomites sank further and were covered by sedimentary layers and laid in depth for the next two hundred million years.

The Tre Cimes are a striking triple peaks in the Dolomites.

The Tre Cimes are a striking triple peaks in the Dolomites. Photo by D. Apai

Only recently, when the African continental plate collided again with the European plate, were the ancient coral reefs forced to resurface again. Together with other Triassic layers these rocks — once a seafloor — were now pushed up thousands of meters to become the dramatic high peaks of the new-born Alps. Once exposed to snow, ice, rain, and wind, the layers began to rapidly erode, creating the picturesque formations I was able to see today.

But the Dolomites’s story also holds a clue to why we are here: amazingly, the process that formed them and destroys part of a grander process them keeps Earth habitable. The mean temperature of Earth and its local and seasonal variations — its climate — is relatively stable: although major global changes occurred in the past and will probably occur in the future, Earth’s mean temperature mostly remained close to the current temperature and has seen much smaller changes than Mars and Venus have.

The key long-term stabilizing mechanism that keeps Earth’s climate in the habitable range (allowing liquid water on its surface) is the carbon cycle: it is the journey of carbon through the atmosphere, the ocean, the rocks, and the volcanoes of our planet. It is a journey that may take hundreds of million of years for a given carbon atom to complete, providing a slow connection between key reservoirs of carbon in Earth: CO2 in the atmosphere and carbonate rocks in the lithosphere. What makes this journey a feedback cycle is that it is both sensitive to the temperature and able to regulate it: The amount of CO2 — a powerful greenhouse gas — in the atmosphere directly impacts Earth’s temperature: the more CO2 is in the air, the more of Earth’s own emission is captured by it and re-radiated back to Earth, just like a blanket would provide additional heating to our planet (by slowing its cooling) — just as glass windows do in a greenhouse. However, the higher the temperature, the higher the humidity in the air and the more condensation occurs — and the more it rains, the more CO2 is washed out from the atmosphere forming acidic rain. The rain then interacts with silicate-rocks and forms carbonate rocks in the silicate weathering process — or, in a planet that is so filled with life as ours, tiny organisms can grab the carbon-dioxide dissolved in the ocean to build shells or coral reefs. As the Dolomites also show, vast amounts of carbon dioxide can be captured (over long periods of time) in rocks. Slowly, the carbonate rocks will be eroded and carried by rivers to the oceans, deposited to the ocean floor and, eventually, subducted along the oceanic/continental plate boundaries. There, many kilometers deep, the carbonate rocks will be exposed to very high pressures and temperatures, converting the carbonate rocks back to the silicates and expelling CO2 and water — these gases will then find their ways to the surface through explosive volcanoes near the plate subduction boundaries.

Because the loss of CO2 from the atmosphere is temperature sensitive (higher temperature leads to more rain and more carbonate formation) but the source of the CO2 is temperature insensitive (volcanoes do not care about the surface temperatures), the whole cycle forms a net negative feedback cycle: higher temperatures will result in cooling and lower temperatures will result in warming. The negative cycle means that it is stabilizing the temperature of Earth: because the carbonate reservoirs are vast, the effect is powerful; but because it takes hundreds of millions of years to transport carbonate rocks to subduction zones via plate tectonics, the cycle is also very small. While it has kept Earth habitable on long timescales (~100 Myr), the cycle can’t work well on short timescales (<10-30 Myr).

How would this apply to other Earth-like planets? While on present-day Earth the carbonate formation is dominantly through organic processes (various shell-forming marine organisms are happy to make use of the CO2 dissolved in the ocean), in the early Earth and, presumably, in other Earth-like planets with little or no life the same process can occur inorganically, but somewhat slower, in silicate rock weathering.

Therefore, as long as the overall composition of other Earth-like planets are the similar to ours, we would expect them to sport a carbon cycle (either organic or inorganic), also providing a stable climate for them — as long as the planets remain within the temperature range where the carbon cycle can work.

This means that carbonate deposits should be common even beyond the Solar System — and, just perhaps, a few in the Galaxy will also match the majestic beauty of the Dolomites.

The Dolomites mountain range preserves a thick layer of Triassic coral reefs.

Daniel Apai at the Dolomites mountain range, that preserves a thick layer of Triassic coral reefs.

Building Planetary Systems

Mikayla Mace is a UA journalism graduate student who is writing a nice series of article on our Earths in Other Solar Systems work. She has just posted a piece on our Genesis Database, the mother of all planet formation simulations, featuring Gijs Mulders and Fred Ciesla. The Genesis Database will help us understand how habitable earth-like planets can form and around which stars are they more likely to exist:

Building Planetary Systems: The Genesis Database

Not the ocean planet you were told about: By weight Earth has only very little water, below a percent.

Not the ocean planet you were told about: By weight Earth has only very little water, below a percent.