Today, I presented the latest Planet Hunters NGTS results at the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting in the University of Warwick. Good news everyone! I am very excited to announce that we have four new planet candidates have been found by Planet Hunters NGTS. In addition, we have been able to get some observations of three of these new potential planet candidates with the Gemini South telescope in Chile!
I have spent the past several months developing a software pipeline to combine all of your assessments together for the various workflows that make up the website. This sifts through the candidates output from the NGTS algorithms to look for any new possible planets. In my preliminary search through the classifications available, I took the best candidates that were classified in the Secondary Eclipse Check and Odd/Even Transit Check and shared our findings with the rest of the NGTS team. Four of these candidates look like possible planet transiting planets and are shown in Figure 1.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to go from planet candidate to bonafide planet, so the four objects are still planet candidates. To confirm possible transit events requires using additional detection methods to get the mass of the orbiting body that confirm it has a mass less than a star or additional observations that can help statistically rule out the possible astrophysical false positives that can mimic planet transits (like eclipsing binaries). These candidates are around faint stars which will make validating these planets a tricky process.
Three of our planet candidates were observed in the past month to get follow-up observations. We worked with our collaborators in the US to apply for observing time on the Gemini South telescope. This involves: justifying why our candidates are interesting (there’s a lot of really interesting science that people want to do that we have to compete with!); justifying why the Gemini telescopes and Zorro instrument (see next paragraph) are the best tools for the job (in this case, Zorro is one of only a few instruments in the world that can carry out the kind of observation we need, another being ‘Alopeke on the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii); and calculating how much time we’d need to use the telescope for.
The instrument we are using is the ‘Zorro Speckle Imager.’ Zorro takes lots of images of the star in quick succession, which allows us to “freeze out” the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere that causes light from stars to be distorted (this effect is known as atmospheric seeing, see Figure 2). This allows us to spot whether there are any other stars so close to our targets that the NGTS telescopes couldn’t tell them apart. These background stars contaminate the light we measure for the main target star and dilute eclipsing binary light curves such that we can’t see the secondary transits, mimicking what we would observe for a true transiting planet. This isn’t a design flaw in NGTS but a reality of how different telescopes are built for different purposes. For example, Zorro isn’t designed to survey our targets for the long timespan, like NGTS has, in order to spot these transits in the first place. Using different telescopes for exoplanet follow-up and confirmation is much like a football (soccer) team: if the defenders don’t win the ball from the opposition (NGTS spotting transits), they can’t then pass it to the midfielders to move it up the pitch (Zorro checking for other stars).
Our observations were carried out by the excellent team of astronomers and support staff at Gemini and NASA a few weeks ago and we’re hoping to be sent the full final results soon.
What about the strikers in our analogy? If we find out that these targets are solo stars, that isn’t the final step in confirming an exoplanet (it’s also a big IF). We’d ideally take “radial velocity” measurements which allow us to measure the mass of the exoplanet. This technique works by detecting how much a star is “wobbling.” This wobbling is caused by the exoplanet orbiting the star and the amount of wobble relates to how much mass the exoplanet has. When we say the planets orbit the Sun, really we mean the planets AND the Sun orbit the entire Solar System’s common centre of mass. It just happens to be that this point is very close to the Sun since it’s so big. It’s the same story for exoplanets and their stars. The radial velocity measurements take the role of the striker in our analogy, although it’s important to say that this wouldn’t be the end of it and there’s still plenty other tests to do and data that we have to gather to confirm if any of these candidates are real exoplanets. If we’re unable to take radial velocity measurements then we can potentially use “multicolour photometry” to help towards validating the candidate. This involves checking whether the depth of the transit is the same when we observe the star with different filters on a telescope. These filters only let certain colours of light through, similar to how you’d mainly see pink if you wore Elton John’s famous tinted glasses. If there’s a difference in the depth then it suggests that there is a background eclipsing binary system that is mimicking the transit of an exoplanet. The difference in depth would be because stars have different colours depending on how hot they are, so if we see a shallower or deeper transit using a different filter it is because a background star isn’t as bright in that filter. For these four stars, getting radial velocity observations will be tough as they are very faint and would require lots of time on the world’s largest telescopes, but the first step is to see what the Zorro observations say. Once we can analyse and interpret the Zorro data, we will decide on the next steps.
It’s very exciting to have candidates. Even if we can’t confirm these candidates as official planets, just finding these is an important step. We can still use these planet candidates to estimate the rate of exoplanets around the stars observed by NGTS. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to our project so far, whether it’s been through classifying light curves or getting involved with discussing potential candidates and weird subjects on the Talk boards. We couldn’t have done this without you. Also thank you to the extremely helpful team of instrument scientists at Gemini who helped us to setup our observations and the team at NASA for processing our data.
We also have many more subjects from the Exoplanet Transit Search still to sift through with the Secondary Eclipse and Odd/Even Transit checks. I performed an initial search, so there is much more I will be doing in terms of analysis of the classification data over the next many months. I am very hopeful that there will be even more candidates to find! Stay tuned! We’ll keep everyone posted on the blog.