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Unique exoplanet photobombs CHEOPS study of nearby star system

Artist’s impression of CHEOPS, two planets of the Nu2 Lupi planetary system and the Constellation Lupus. © Francois Schuiten & Laurent Durieux

While studying two exoplanets in a bright nearby star system, the CHEOPS satellite has unexpectedly spotted the system’s third known planet crossing the face of the star. This transit reveals exciting details about a rare planet “with no known equivalent”, as the scientific team led by the Universities of Geneva and Bern, and members of the National Center of Competence in Research PlanetS, point out.

Photobombs – when something or someone unexpectedly enters a camera’s field of sight during the taking of a photograph – happen every day. Sometimes it is a friend, other times a stranger or perhaps a bird. Rarely, however, is it a whole planet. Yet, this is exactly what happened while CHEOPS, the Swiss-led space telescope, was taking pictures of a planetary system 48 light-years away.

A planet like no other
The planetary system is located in the constellation Lupus (latin for Wolf), around a star called Nu2 Lupi, visible to the naked eye (but not from Switzerland). In 2019, Swiss astronomers announced the detection of three exoplanets around this bright, Sun-like star. The three exoplanets have masses between those of Earth and Neptune (17 times the Earth) and take 12, 28 and 107 days to circle their parent star. “What makes these exoplanets really outstanding is that we can see them passing just in front of their star; they’re said to ‘transit’”, says Yann Alibert, professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern and co-author of the study which has been published in Nature Astronomy. “We knew that already for the two inner planets, which led us to point CHEOPS to the system in the first place. However, the third planet is quite far away from the star, no one was expected to see its transit!”, Alibert adds. In fact, the farther away the planet is from its star, the less likely it is to transit.

Yann Alibert is professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern and member of the NCCR PlanetS. © Anne Wurthlin

This proved a game changer, as it is the first time an exoplanet with a revolution period of over 100 days – which corresponds to a distance from the star somewhere between that of Mercury and Venus from the Sun – has been spotted transiting a star that is bright enough to be visible to the naked eye.

“Due to its relatively long period, the amount of stellar radiation reaching the planet is mild in comparison to many other discovered exoplanets. The less radiation a planet receives, the less it changes over time. Therefore, a planet with a long period could have retained more information about its origin”, says David Ehrenreich, professor at the University of Geneva, mission scientist of CHEOPS and co-author of the study. But so far, the few such exoplanets astronomers had found orbited faint stars. In other words: little of their light reaches Earth and therefore makes them difficult to study. Not this time: “Since its bright host star is quite close to us, it is easier to study. This makes it a golden target for future study with no known equivalent”, Ehrenreich adds.

Further insights from other telescopes

Laetitia Delrez was a visiting researcher at the University of Geneva, now at the University of Liège, Belgium. Photo: Jean Louis Wertz

The high-precision measurements of CHEOPS reveal the third planet, called nu2 Lupi d, to be about 2.5 times the size of Earth and almost 9 times its mass. By combining these measurements with archival data from other observatories and numerical models developed by the University of Bern, Laetitia Delrez, a visiting researcher at the University of Geneva and lead-author of the study, was able to accurately characterize the density and composition the planet and its neighbors. “The innermost planet is mainly rocky, while the outer two appear to be enshrouded in envelopes of hydrogen and helium gases beneath which they hold large amounts of water”, Delrez explains. Far more water, in fact, than the Earth has: a quarter of each planet’s mass is made up of water, compared to less than 0.1% for Earth. This water, however, is not liquid, instead taking the form of high-pressure ice or high-temperature steam, making the planets uninhabitable. But these insights could only be the beginning.

David Ehrenreich is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Geneva and member of the NCCR PlanetS. © David Ehrenreich

“Now that we discovered that all three planets transit and have precisely measured their properties, the next step is to study them with bigger and more powerful instruments than CHEOPS, like the Hubble Space Telescope or its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. They could reveal further details, such as the composition of the atmosphere” says Ehrenreich. Given its overall properties and orbit, planet d is going to become the poster-child of exoplanets with a mild-temperature atmosphere around a star similar to the Sun.

Publication details:
Delrez et al.: Transit detection of the long-period volatile-rich super-Earth ν2 Lupi d with CHEOPS, Nature Astronomy.

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