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Starts With A Bang

10 planetary facts that extend beyond our Solar System

Back in 1990, we hadn’t discovered a single planet outside of our Solar System. Here are 10 facts that would’ve surprised every astronomer.
life beyond earth
Left, an image of Earth from the DSCOVR-EPIC camera. Right, the same image degraded to a resolution of 3 x 3 pixels, similar to what researchers will see in future exoplanet observations for the closest exoplanets. If we were to build a telescope capable of obtaining ~60-70 micro-arc-second resolution, we'd be able to image an Earth-like planet at this level at the distance of Alpha Centauri. Even with a single pixel, however, a tremendous amount of science could be gleaned.
Credit: NOAA/NASA/Stephen Kane
Key Takeaways
  • Over the last ~30 years, our understanding of exoplanets, or planets beyond our own Solar System, has gone from purely hypothetical to an observationally rich field.
  • With over 5000 exoplanets under our belt and several planet-rich systems having been directly imaged, we’ve learned so much that defied our initial expectations.
  • Here are 10 facts that would blow even the most brilliant astronomer’s mind if you had presented them back in 1990. I bet they blow your mind, too.

It’s hard to imagine, but back in 1990 — the year that the Hubble Space Telescope was launched — we had yet to discover a single planet beyond the ones within our own Solar System. We were fairly certain they existed, but we didn’t know if they were rare, common, or everywhere. We didn’t know whether rocky planets or gas giants were “normal” planets, or whether there were other types that our own Solar System doesn’t have. And for better or for worse, we operated under the assumption that our Solar System was relatively typical, and that its structure, of inner, rocky planets, an asteroid belt, gas giants, and a Kuiper belt and Oort cloud beyond them would be the template for most, if not all, other planetary systems.

What a wild ride the last ~30 or so years have been, and how much they turned our assumptions on their heads. With over 5000 exoplanets now under our belts, and many other protoplanetary disks (where planets form) having been directly imaged, we now realize that much of what we initially thought was entirely too presumptive of us, and that nature is full of surprises. Here are 10 planetary facts that would’ve surprised practically every working astronomer back in 1990, and might still surprise you today!

star metallicity throughout the Milky Way
This color-coded map shows the heavy element abundances of more than 6 million stars within the Milky Way. Stars in red, orange, and yellow are all rich enough in heavy elements that they should have planets; green and cyan-coded stars should only rarely have planets, and stars coded blue or violet should have absolutely no planets at all around them. Note that the central plane of the galactic disk, extending all the way into the galactic core, has the potential for habitable, rocky planets.
Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

1.) Not every star can have them. One of the first surprises that awaited exoplanet scientists came when the Kepler mission first began examining a large field of over 100,000 stars, looking for planetary transits. When a planet passes in front of its parent star, it blocks a fraction of the star’s light. As multiple orbits and multiple transits build up, we can better pin down the orbital distance and physical size of the exoplanet. Initially, based on the number of stars we were looking at and the geometric chances of having a transit observable from our particular line-of-sight, it looked like perhaps ~100% of stars would have planets.

But it turns out that this isn’t the case. When we classify stars by metallicity, or the percentage of elements heavier than hydrogen-and-helium within the star, there’s a clear drop-off in planetary abundances. Practically all stars with 25% or more of the heavy elements found in the Sun have planets, only a fraction of stars with between 10-25% of the Sun’s heavy elements have planets, and only two or three stars with under 10% of the Sun’s heavy elements have planets at all. Unless you form from material that’s been sufficiently enriched by prior generations of stars, your star isn’t likely to have planets.

When we take into account all of the nearly 5000 exoplanets known at the start of 2022, we can see that the greatest number of planets can be found in between the sizes of Earth (at -1.0 on the x-axis) and Neptune (at -0.5 on the x-axis). However, that does not mean that those worlds are the most abundant, nor that they’re even, as we’ve long been calling them, legitimate “super-Earth” worlds. However, the gap between Neptune-like and Jupiter-like worlds is real; we do not know why there are so few of them.
Credit: Open Exoplanet Catalogue

2.) Super-Neptunes (or Mini-Saturns) are rare. We knew, from our own Solar System, that gas giant planets came in at least two different sizes: about four times Earth’s radius, like Neptune and Uranus, and about ten times Earth’s radius, like Jupiter and Saturn. But what else would we find? Would these sizes of worlds be common or rare? Would there be large numbers of gas giant planets found with properties unlike those found in our Solar System, like super-Jupiters, “tweeners” that were in between Neptune and Saturn in size, or mini-Neptunes?

It turns out that both Jupiter-sized and Neptune-sized planets are very common, with mini-Neptunes also being even more common than Neptunian worlds. But in between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn are very few planets at all, suggesting that there’s some physical reason why planets tend to avoid forming with sizes between 5-and-9 Earth radii. That reason is still under investigation, but it’s fantastic to know that Neptunes and Jupiters are common, while in-between worlds aren’t!

exoplanets in orbit direct image
This animation shows the four super-Jupiter planets directly imaged in orbit around the star HR 8799, whose light is blocked by a coronagraph. The four exoplanets shown here are among the easiest to directly image owing to their large size and brightness, as well as their huge separation from their parent star. Our ability to directly image exoplanets is constrained to giant exoplanets at great distances from bright stars, but improvements in coronagraph technology will dramatically change that story.
Credit: Jason Wang (Northwestern)/William Thompson (UVic)/Christian Marois (NRC Herzberg)/Quinn Konopacky (UCSD)

3.) Ultra-distant gas giants are fairly common. Here in our own Solar System, there’s a big “cliff” out beyond 30 times the Earth-Sun distance, or 30 astronomical units (AU). We have eight major planets interior to that distance, but none that are even as large as the smallest planet, Mercury, beyond that distance.

But around many stars, there are giant planets located a great distance away: 50 AU, 100 AU, or even several hundred AU away from the main star in their system. Some of these planets are so large that their cores exceed 1 million K in temperature, enabling them to fuse deuterium and become brown dwarfs, while others fall below that mass threshold and instead only generate infrared light, similar to Jupiter.

These systems, like HR 8799 (above), are some of the best systems for direct imaging, and have revealed to us many directly imaged exoplanets thus far.

microlensing event
When a gravitational microlensing event occurs, the background light from a star gets distorted and magnified as an intervening mass travels across or near the line-of-sight to the star. The effect of the intervening gravity bends the space between the light and our eyes, creating a specific signal that reveals the mass and speed of the object in question.
Credit: Jan Skowron/Astronomical Observatory, University of Warsaw

4.) Many planets are orphans, without a parent star. In this Universe, what you see isn’t what you get; it’s only representative of the fraction of what you got that survived until the present day. This is true in our Solar System, where many now think that there was a 5th gas giant in our early history that got ejected long ago, and it’s true elsewhere throughout the Universe as well. Some planets remain with their parent stars, others are ejected and roam the Universe as orphan (or rogue) planets, and others very likely come into existence in star-forming regions around clumps of matter that were too low in mass to form a star.

Fortunately, a novel method has begun to reveal these rogue planets: gravitational microlensing. As these planets travel through the galaxy, they’ll inevitably pass through our line-of-sight to one or more stars, and when they do, their gravity will bend, distort, and temporarily magnify the light from one of those co-aligned stars. That characteristic microlensing signal has been observed several times, revealing these otherwise invisible orphan planets. With improved observatories and greater wide-field continuous imaging, microlensing may someday reveal more total exoplanets than all other methods combined.

hot exoplanet
Like many “hot Jupiter” planets, WASP-96b transits in front of its parent star, blocking up to ~1.5% of the parent star’s light when it does. The portion of the starlight that filters through the exoplanet’s atmosphere, during a transit event, is what enables JWST to perform transit spectroscopy and to reveal its atmospheric contents. Hot exoplanets are the easiest type to detect.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

5.) Ultra-hot planets are the easiest to detect. When it comes to our Solar System, Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, with an orbit of just 88 days and a maximum daytime temperature of over 800 °F (427 °C). But some of the exoplanets that we’ve found have temperatures of several thousands of degrees, and orbit their parent stars in only a handful of days or even in a matter of hours.

It turns out there’s good reason for this: the two methods we use, the radial velocity method (where we measure the “wobble” of a star due to the gravitational effects of an orbiting planet) and the transit method (where we measure the periodic dimming of the parent star as the orbiting planet blocks its light) are both biased toward planets that orbit extremely close to their parent stars.

While the first discovered exoplanets were hot and massive, we’ve now discovered a great number of planets of all masses that are very close to their parent stars. That’s not because they’re super common, but because fast-moving planets lead to more dramatic changes in their parent star’s motion and allow us to observe greater numbers of transits in the same amount of observing time. It’s not worth taking a second look at the stars we’ve monitored for evidence of additional hot planets; we’ve probably already seen most of them in the fields of view where we’ve looked.

multiwavelength Fomalhaut
A wide variety of telescopes have looked at the Fomalhaut system in a variety of wavelengths from both the ground and in space. Only JWST, so far, has been able to resolve the inner regions of the dusty debris present in the Fomalhaut system.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Gáspár (University of Arizona) et al., Nature Astronomy, 2023

6.) Long after the planet-forming gas is gone, dusty debris remains. This one was a bit of a puzzle that’s only been unveiled extremely recently. We’ve known for a long time that planet-formation occurs very quickly, and is only possible as long as gas remains around a young star. Once that protoplanetary disk evaporates, planet-formation is complete. Dust, on the other hand, is produced whenever two bodies collide, and can be caused by comet storms, asteroid collisions with one another or with rocky bodies, or several other violent events.

But while the gas is all gone after only perhaps 10-20 million years around a newly formed star, the dust can persist for several hundred million years (and perhaps even a billion or more) all throughout stellar systems. While a number of systems have exhibited dust within the analogue of their Kuiper belts, recent observations have shown some big surprises, including:

  • dust found all throughout the inner disk-like region of a stellar system,
  • an intermediate ring of dust between the asteroid belt-like and Kuiper belt-like regions of a stellar system,
  • and systems with up to hundreds of times the amount of dust present in our own Solar System.

These clues add up to a tantalizing possibility: maybe our own Solar System, during the early bombardment period, was once a dust-rich system, too.

Fomalhaut system JWST
This image of the dusty debris disk surrounding the young star Fomalhaut is from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). It reveals three nested belts extending out to 14 billion miles (23 billion kilometers) from the star. The inner belts – which had never been seen before – were revealed by Webb for the first time. Labels at left indicate the individual features. At right, a great dust cloud is highlighted and pullouts show it in two infrared wavelengths: 23 and 25.5 microns.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA; Processing: A. Gáspár (University of Arizona) &Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

7.) Asteroid belts and Kuiper belts are just the tip of the iceberg. We initially thought that an asteroid belt and a Kuiper belt would make sense, and might even be universal properties for stellar systems. After all, the different types of ices that form in space all have their own melting/boiling/sublimation points, and that creates a series of what are known as “frost lines,” or places on the border of where ice of a specific species (water-ice, dry ice, methane ice, nitrogen ice, etc.) can or cannot exist around a star. These lines should correspond to where a belt of asteroids forms, in between any interior and exterior planets.

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Similarly, there should be a collection of small planetesimals left over out beyond the final planet in a system: a Kuiper belt. So why, as we just observed around Fomalhaut, are we seeing a third belt at intermediate distances? Are there other systems that have more than a Kuiper belt and an asteroid belt, and what sort of physical formation mechanisms drive them into existence? Is our Solar System even common in this regard, or are multiple (perhaps even more than three) belts the norm? We’re truly right at the scientific frontiers here, and this is one discovery that was entirely unexpected.

trinary exoplanet system
Although exoplanets have been found in trinary systems before in recent years, most of them orbit either close in to a single star or in intermediate orbits around a central binary, with the third star much farther away. GW Orionis is the first candidate system to have a planet orbiting all three stars at once. About 35% of all stars are in binary systems and another 10% are in trinary systems; only about half of stars are singlets like our Sun.
Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

8.) Multi-star systems can have planets nearly as easily as singlet stars. For a long time, the idea of a Tatooine-like system, where a planet would observe multiple Sun-like stars in their daytime sky, was treated as a physical impossibility. The rationale was that the gravitational three-body problem would render any planet that orbited with multiple large masses nearby would eventually be ejected, rendering such systems what we call in the physics community “dynamically unstable.”

And while this is technically true, the timescale for that instability can be several tens of billions of years: longer than the age of the Universe. For every pair of orbiting stars, there are three regions that are quasi-stable:

  • close in orbit around the primary (larger mass) star,
  • close in orbit around the secondary (lower mass) star,
  • or far away from the center-of-mass of both stars.

We’ve now found exoplanets that fall into all three of these categories, leading to the understanding that except for a few gravitationally unstable regions set by the relative masses and distances between the stars in a single system, there are plenty of places where planets can stably orbit over the lifetime of a stellar system. In time, we may yet find that the same percentage of multi-star systems are home to planets as singlet-star systems are.

super earth and mini neptune around nu2 lupi cheops
The CHEOPS mission discovered three planets around the star Nu2 Lupi. The innermost planet is rocky and contains only a thin atmosphere, while the second and third planets discovered have large, volatile-rich envelopes. Although some are still calling them super-Earths, it’s very clear that not only are they not rocky, but most of the planets we call super-Earths are not like Earth at all in any meaningful way. This extends to all exoplanets with a radius above 1.7 Earth radii, with many of smaller sizes still having hydrogen and helium envelopes.
Credit: ESA/CHEOPS collaboration

9.) You can only be slightly more massive than Earth and still be rocky and life-friendly. We really jumped to a premature conclusion the first time we discovered an exoplanet with a mass-and-radius that was larger than Earth’s but smaller than Neptune’s: we called them super-Earth worlds. While that’s a tempting way to think about these worlds, it should be equally tempting to think of them as mini-Neptunes, as our simple methods of exoplanet detection have not yet reached the sensitivity to measure and characterize the atmospheres of these worlds. If they’re thin and have rocky surfaces, we’d expect them to be Earth-like; if they’re thick and have large, volatile gas envelopes before you ever reach a solid surface, we’d expect them to be Neptune-like.

As measurements of the combination of exoplanet mass, exoplanet radius, and the exoplanet temperature (based on distance from its primary parent star) show, you can only be about ~30% larger and about ~2x as massive as Earth before you transition into a Neptune-like world, as it becomes very easy to hold onto volatile gases with only a little bit more mass than a planet like Earth has. There are exceptions to this general rule, but the exceptions are largely found among very hot worlds whose volatiles are easily boiled and evaporated away. All the while that we’ve been wondering where our Solar System’s “super-Earths” are, the answer has been right under our noses: we are nearly as “super” as an Earth-like planet can get.

LUVOIR concept space telescope
Ideally, the new space telescope Habitable Worlds Observatory, with capabilities between those of the previously-proposed HabEx and LUVOIR (shown here), will be large enough to image a large number of Earth-like exoplanets directly, while still having the desired properties to keep it on-budget and not require the development of wholly new, untested technologies. This observatory, known as Habitable Worlds Observatory, will be NASA’s next flagship mission after the Nancy Roman space telescope.
Credit: NASA/GSFC, LUVOIR concept

10.) The exoplanet holy grail, of directly imaging Earth-sized planets in the so-called Habitable Zone, is finally within reach. This is a big one, and it’s finally coming. We’ve often dreamed of what an appropriately advanced alien civilization would see if they looked at Earth from afar, and how they’d tell our planet is inhabited. As the planet rotated on its axis, they would see evidence for clouds, oceans, and variable continents. As the seasons changed, they would see icecaps grow and retreat while the continents greened and browned. And if they could measure our atmospheric contents, they would see gas levels change in a way that indicated that we were not only an inhabited world, but that a technologically advanced species lived here.

With the upcoming NASA flagship mission in either the 2030s or 2040s known as Habitable Worlds Observatory headed our way, we’re going to meet that goal: not for Earth, but for any Earth-like planets that happen to be located around the ~20 or so nearest star systems to our own. The combination of having a space-based telescope that’s sufficiently large, with sufficiently advanced instruments, and with an unprecedentedly efficient coronagraph can finally reveal the nearest rocky worlds to us directly, and measure their atmospheres for signs of life, including intelligent life. The great dream of 20th century astronomers will come to fruition in just another 15-20 years, and humanity just might reap the ultimate rewards: getting an affirmative answer to the question of “Are we alone in the Universe?”


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