In the first attempt to systematically search for "extrasolar" planets far beyond our local stellar neighborhood, astronomers probed the heart of a distant globular star cluster and were surprised to come up with a score of "zero".
To the fascination and puzzlement of planet-searching astronomers, the results offer a sobering counterpoint to the flurry of planet discoveries announced over the previous months.
"This could be the first tantalizing evidence that conditions for planet formation and evolution may be fundamentally different elsewhere in the galaxy," says Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD.
The bold and innovative observation pushed NASA Hubble Space Telescope's capabilities to its limits, simultaneously scanning for small changes in the light from 35,000 stars in the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, located 15,000 light-years (4 kiloparsecs) away in the southern constellation Tucana.
Hubble researchers caution that the finding must be tempered by the fact that some astronomers always considered the ancient globular cluster an unlikely abode for planets for a variety of reasons. Specifically, the cluster has a deficiency of heavier elements that may be needed for building planets. If this is the case, then planets may have formed later in the universe's evolution, when stars were richer in heavier elements. Correspondingly, life as we know it may have appeared later rather than sooner in the universe.
Another caveat is that Hubble searched for a specific type of planet called a "hot Jupiter," which is considered an oddball among some planet experts. The results do not rule out the possibility that 47 Tucanae could contain normal solar systems like ours, which Hubble could not have detected. But even if that's the case, the "null" result implies there is still something fundamentally different between the way planets are made in our own neighborhood and how they are made in the cluster.
Hubble couldn't directly view the planets, but instead employed a powerful search technique where the telescope measures the slight dimming of a star due to the passage of a planet in front of it, an event called a transit. The planet would have to be a bit larger than Jupiter to block enough light about one percent to be measurable by Hubble; Earth-like planets are too small.
However, an outside observer would have to watch our Sun for as long as 12 years before ever having a chance of seeing Jupiter briefly transit the Sun's face. The Hubble observation was capable of only catching those planetary transits that happen every few days. This would happen if the planet were in an orbit less than 1/20 Earth's distance from the Sun, placing it even closer to the star than the scorched planet Mercury hence the name "hot Jupiter."
Why expect to find such a weird planet in the first place?
Based on radial-velocity surveys from ground-based telescopes, which measure the slight wobble in a star due to the small tug of an unseen companion, astronomers have found nine hot Jupiters in our local stellar neighborhood. Statistically this means one percent of all stars should have such planets. It's estimated that the orbits of 10 percent of these planets are tilted edge-on to Earth and so transit the face of their star.
In 1999, the first observation of a transiting planet was made by ground-based telescopes. The planet, with a 3.5-day period, had previously been detected by radial-velocity surveys, but this was a unique, independent confirmation. In a separate program to study a planet in these revealing circumstances, Ron Gilliland (STScI) and lead investigator Tim Brown (National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO) demonstrated Hubble's exquisite ability to do precise photometry the measurement of brightness and brightness changes in a star's light by also looking at the planet. The Hubble data were so good they could look for evidence of rings or Earth-sized moons, if they existed.
But to discover new planets by transits, Gilliland had to crowd a lot of stars into Hubble's narrow field of view. The ideal target was the magnificent southern globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, one of the closest clusters to Earth. Within a single Hubble picture Gilliland could observe 35,000 stars at once. Like making a time-lapse movie, he had to take sequential snapshots of the cluster, looking for a telltale dimming of a star and recording any light curve that would be the true signature of a planet.
Based on statistics from a sampling of planets in our local stellar neighborhood, Gilliland and his co-investigators reasoned that 1 out of 1,000 stars in the globular cluster should have planets that transit once every few days. They predicted that Hubble should discover 17 hot Jupiter-class planets.
To catch a planet in a several-day orbit, Gilliland had Hubble's "eagle eye" trained on the cluster for eight consecutive days. The result was the most data-intensive observation ever done by Hubble. STScI archived over 1,300 exposures during the observation. Gilliland and Brown sifted through the results and came up with 100 variable stars, some of them eclipsing binaries where the companion is a star and not a planet. But none of them had the characteristic light curve that would be the signature of an extrasolar planet.
There are a variety of reasons the globular cluster environment may inhibit planet formation. 47 Tucanae is old and so is deficient in the heavier elements, which were formed later in the universe through the nucleosynthesis of heavier elements in the cores of first-generation stars. Planet surveys show that within 100 light-years of the Sun, heavy-element-rich stars are far more likely to harbor a hot Jupiter than heavy-element-poor stars. However, this is a chicken and egg puzzle because some theoreticians say that the heavy-element composition of a star may be enhanced after if it makes Jupiter-like planets and then swallows them as the planet orbit spirals into the star.
The stars are so tightly compacted in the core of the cluster – being separated by 1/100th the distance between our Sun and the next nearest star that gravitational tidal effects may strip nascent planets from their parent stars. Also, the high stellar density could disturb the subsequent migration of the planet inward, which parks the hot Jupiters close to the star.
Another possibility is that a torrent of ultraviolet light from the earliest and biggest stars, which formed in the cluster billions of years ago may have boiled away fragile embryonic dust disks out of which planets would have formed.
These results will be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in December. Follow-up observations are needed to determine whether it is the initial conditions associated with planet birth or subsequent influences on evolution in this heavy-element-poor, crowded environment that led to an absence of planets.
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