I particularly like Frost’s illustration from 1846 which shows how planetary systems were thought to look like in a post-Newtonian universe: in essence, Frost’s universe is filled with copies of the solar system – planets orbit each star. Interestingly, 130 years later the Star Wars universe was not that different: the desert planet Tatooine, the snow planet Hoth, or the forest moon Endor all strongly resemble Earth (not surprising for a movie shot mainly in California). From the vintage print of Frost to the last century’s most visionary sci-fi movie, exoplanetary systems remained just like the solar system and all planets remained similar to Earth (perhaps apart from the exotic collection of tentacled man-eating monsters).
Last week, when traveling from Budapest to Italy by train, I stopped briefly in Venice. Curiously, this charming town known for its canals, palaces, gondolas, and art exhibitions is also arguably the birthplace of cutting-edge exoplanet science: in 1995 in a single conference three important discoveries were announced. The discovery of the first brown dwarfs and the first extrasolar planet orbiting another star, 51 Pegasi b. These exciting discoveries marked the end of universe filled with Solas System ‘clones’ and brought about a reality that is much more interesting and often surprising. Now, there are enough different exoplanet types that they may appear to be a small zoo – but the main distinctions are simply mass, temperature, and composition.
So, what type of sub-stellar objects and exoplanets exist?
Brown Dwarfs: Brown dwarfs are gaseous objects that have too low mass too low (and therefore too low central pressure) to drive fusion reactions, from which stars get their energy supply. The stellar/substellar boundary is defined by the ability of the object to fuse hydrogen into helium and thus produce large amount of energy. The precise mass limit depends on the exact composition of the object, but it is about 70 Jupiter masses (or 0.08 solar masses or about 22,000 earth masses). Objects less massive than this but more massive than planets are called brown dwarfs. The lower boundary is often quoted as 13 Jupiter mass, which has been proposed as a natural break: objects more massive than this will very briefly fuse deuterium and generate some energy temporarily, while the less massive will never be able to drive fusion reactions.
Exoplanets: Objects less massive than brown dwarfs but larger than asteroid sizes that orbit other stars are called exoplanets (or extrasolar planets). Exoplanets are a very diverse group and come in many flavors.
Planetary-mass Objects: If Jupiter would be somehow ejected from the Solar System and become unbound, would it still be a planet? Not according to the current definition. We can now find in great number unbound gaseous objects that are lighter than brown dwarfs but as they do not orbit stars they are not planets. Lacking a better name the term planetary-mass objects has been coined for these.
It is interesting to note that many astronomers adopts a stricter definition for extrasolar planets: only objects that formed from material orbiting a star are called included. This definition addresses the status of the strange objects like 2MASS1207b – a planetary mass object that orbits a brown dwarf at such a large distance that it is not possible for it to have formed like a planet would.
Among exoplanets we often speak about very different objects:
Super-Jupiters: Exoplanets more massive than Jupiter but less massive than 13 jupiter masses, the planet/brown dwarf boundary. Examples include the four known planets in the HR 8799 system, Beta Pictoris b or the recently discovered GJ 504b.
Hot Jupiters: Gas giants planets with masses similar to Jupiter (which is 320 earth masses) that orbit very close to their host stars and thus have extremely high temperatures, usually well over 1,000 K (about 1,300 F). Examples include 51 Peg b, HD 209456b, and Corot-1b.
Hot Neptunes: Giant planets with masses around 20 earth masses that orbit their hosts stars on very short orbits (days) and due to the vicinity to their host stars they have very high temperatures, similarly to hot jupiters.
Super-earths: Planets with masses between 2 and 10 earth masses. Objects in this category may be fully rocky (i.e. jumbo versions of earth), may be ocean planets (with hundreds of times more water than earth has), but they have also enough gravitational pull to hold on to very massive gaseous envelopes (think of a mix between earth and neptune). Although the Solar System has no such planet, super-earths are now found in a rapidly increasing number and as they are easier to characterize than smaller planets, are set to be very important targets for astronomers in the coming years.
Earth-sized planets: Planets with radius similar to Earth. Note, that the density of earth-sized planets may cover a relatively large range and some of these planets may be more massive or less massive than Earth. Even more importantly, an Earth-sized planet may have a similar size to Earth, and may be a much hotter dry rock or a deep-frozen icy body, depending on how close it is to its host star. Most such small planets known currently have been found by the Kepler space telescope; this transiting planet search mission can only measured the sizes of the planets and not their masses.
Earth-like planets: An earth-like planet (or exo-earth) has very similar same size, mass, and temperature to Earth. If these key parameters are similar, there is a good chance that the conditions on the surface of the Earth-like planets is similar to those on Earth – but remember, that during most of Earth history the atmosphere and temperatures were very different from those on modern Earth. Nevertheless, finding and characterizing Earth-like planets is a key goal of astronomy and astrobiology.
Sub-Earths: In the Solar System two out of the four rocky planets are much smaller than Earth: Mars is 11%, while Mercury is only 5.5% of Earth’s mass! The Kepler space telescope‘s amazing accuracy has allowed the detection of planets smaller than Earth in a few exceptional cases, such as the three planets in the Kepler-42 system. Planet formation models predict that sub-earth-mass planets should be very common, even if we can currently only detect a few.
An amazing diversity, isn’t it?