Planet formation is the norm, thus there are billions in our galaxy, says study
The standard assumption of science-fiction like Star Wars, and also many researchers over a century, is just now becoming bolstered by scientific facts: There are billions and billions of planets - in our galaxy alone. A new study by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology provides evidence that planetary systems are the cosmic norm.
The team made their estimate while analyzing planets orbiting a star called Kepler-32 - planets that are representative, they say, of the vast majority of planets in our galaxy and thus serve as a perfect case study for understanding how most of these worlds form.
"There are at least 100 billion planets in the galaxy, just our galaxy," says John Johnson, assistant professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech and coauthor of the study, which was recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. "That's mind-boggling."
"It's a staggering number, if you think about it," adds Jonathan Swift, a postdoctoral student at Caltech and lead author of the paper. "Basically, there's one of these planets per star."
Like the Caltech group, other teams of astronomers have estimated that there is roughly one planet per star, but this is the first time researchers have made such an estimate by studying M-dwarf systems, the most numerous population of planets known.
The planetary system in question, which was detected by NASA's Kepler space telescope, contains five planets. Two of the planets orbiting Kepler-32 had previously been discovered by other astronomers. The Caltech team confirmed the remaining three, then analyzed the five-planet system and compared it to other systems found by Kepler.
M-dwarf systems like Kepler-32′s are quite different from our own solar system. For one, M dwarfs are cooler and much smaller than the sun. Kepler-32, for example, has half the mass of the sun and half its radius. The radii of its five planets range from 0.8 to 2.7 times that of Earth, and those planets orbit extremely close to their star. The whole Kepler-32 system fits within just over a tenth of an astronomical unit (the average distance between Earth and the sun) - a distance that is about a third of the radius of Mercury's orbit around the sun.
The fact that M-dwarf systems vastly outnumber other kinds of systems carries a profound implication, according to Johnson, which is that our solar system is extremely rare. "It's just a weirdo," he says.
The fact that the planets in M-dwarf systems are so close to their stars doesn't necessarily mean that they're fiery, hellish worlds unsuitable for life, the astronomers say. Indeed, because M dwarfs are small and cool, their temperate zone -- also known as the "habitable zone," the region where liquid water might exist -- is also further inward. Even though only the outermost of Kepler-32's five planets lies in its temperate zone, many other M dwarf systems have more planets that sit right in their temperate zones.
As for how the Kepler-32 system formed, no one knows yet. But the team says its analysis places constraints on possible mechanisms. For example, the results suggest that the planets all formed farther away from the star than they are now, and migrated inward over time.
Like all planets, the ones around Kepler-32 formed from a proto-planetary disk -- a disk of dust and gas that clumped up into planets around the star. The astronomers estimated that the mass of the disk within the region of the five planets was about as much as that of three Jupiters. But other studies of proto-planetary disks have shown that three Jupiter masses can't be squeezed into such a tiny area so close to a star, suggesting to the Caltech team that the planets around Kepler-32 initially formed farther out.
Another line of evidence relates to the fact that M dwarfs shine brighter and hotter when they are young, when planets would be forming. Kepler-32 would have been too hot for dust -- a key planet-building ingredient -- to even exist in such close proximity to the star. Previously, other astronomers had determined that the third and fourth planets from the star are not very dense, meaning that they are likely made of volatile compounds such as carbon dioxide, methane, or other ices and gases, the Caltech team says. However, those volatile compounds could not have existed in the hotter zones close to the star.
Finally, the Caltech astronomers discovered that three of the planets have orbits that are related to one another in a very specific way. One planet's orbital period lasts twice as long as another's, and the third planet's lasts three times as long as the latter's. Planets don't fall into this kind of arrangement immediately upon forming, Johnson says. Instead, the planets must have started their orbits farther away from the star before moving inward over time and settling into their current configuration.
"You look in detail at the architecture of this very special planetary system, and you're forced into saying these planets formed farther out and moved in," Johnson explains.
The implications of a galaxy chock full of planets are far-reaching, the researchers say. "It's really fundamental from an origins standpoint," says Swift, who notes that because M dwarfs shine mainly in infrared light, the stars are invisible to the naked eye. "Kepler has enabled us to look up at the sky and know that there are more planets out there than stars we can see."