Exoplanets true to size

From the brightness variations of its host star, an exoplanet’s size and other properties can be determined. In order to avoid mistakes, the star’s magnetic field is decisive.

A star’s magnetic field must be considered in order to correctly determine the characteristics of exoplanets from observations by space telescopes such as Kepler, James Webb, or PLATO. This is demonstrated by new model calculations by a research group led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. The researchers show that the distribution of the star’s brightness over its disk depends on the star’s level of magnetic activity. This, in turn, affects the signature of an exoplanet in observational data. The new model must be used in order to properly interpret the data from the latest generation of space telescopes pointed at distant worlds outside our Solar System.

700 light years away from Earth in the constellation Virgo, the planet WASP-39b orbits the star WASP-39. The gas giant, which takes little more than four days to complete one orbit, is one of the best-studied exoplanets: Shortly after its commissioning in July 2022, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope turned its high-precision gaze on the distant planet. The data revealed evidence of large quantities of water vapor, of methane and even, for the first time, of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of WASP-39b. A minor sensation! But there is still one fly in the ointment: researchers have not yet succeeded in reproducing all the crucial details of the observations in model calculations. This stands in the way of an even more precise analyses of the data. In the new study led by the MPS, the authors, including researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA), the Space Telescope Science Institute (USA), Keele University (United Kingdom), and the University of Heidelberg (Germany), show a way to overcome this obstacle.

"The problems arising when interpreting the data from WASP-39b are well known from many other exoplanets - regardless whether they are observed with Kepler, TESS, James Webb, or the future PLATO spacecraft," explains Nadiia Kostogryz from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. "As with other stars orbited by exoplanets, the observed light curve of WASP-39 is flatter than previous models can explain," she adds.

Researchers define a light curve as a measurement of the brightness of a star over a longer period of time. The brightness of a star fluctuates constantly, for example because its luminosity is subject to natural fluctuations. Exoplanets can also leave traces in the light curve. If an exoplanet passes in front of its star as seen by an observer, it dims the starlight. This is reflected in the light curve as a regularly recurring drop in brightness. Precise evaluations of such curves provide information about the size and orbital period of the planet. Researchers can also obtain information about the composition of the planet's atmosphere, if the light from the star is split into its different wavelengths or colours.

A close look at a star’s brightness distribution

The limb of a star, the edge of the stellar disk, plays a decisive role in the interpretation of its light curve. Just as in the case of the Sun, the limb appears darker to the observer than the inner area. However, the star does not actually shine less brightly further out. "As the star is a sphere and its surface curved, we look into higher and therefore cooler layers at the limb than in the center," explains Laurent Gizon, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. "This area therefore appears darker to us," he adds.

It is known that the limb darkening affects the exact shape of the exoplanet signal in the light curve: The dimming determines how steeply the brightness of a star falls during a planetary transit and then rises again. However, it has not been possible to reproduce observational data accurately using conventional models of the stellar atmosphere. The decrease of brightness was always less abrupt than the model calculations suggested. "It was clear that we were missing a crucial piece of the puzzle to precisely understand the exoplanets’ signal," says Sami Solanki, cirector at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Magnetic field is the missing piece of the puzzle

As the calculations published today show, the missing piece of the puzzle is the stellar magnetic field. Like the Sun, many stars generate a magnetic field deep in their interior through enormous flows of hot plasma. For the first time, the researchers were now able to include the magnetic field in their models of limb darkening. They could show that the strength of the magnetic field has an important effect: The limb darkening is pronounced in stars with a weak magnetic field, while it is weaker in those with a strong magnetic field.

The researchers were also able to prove that the discrepancy between observational data and model calculations disappears if the star's magnetic field is included in the computations. To this end, the team turned to selected data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, which captured the light of thousands and thousands of stars from 2009 to 2018. In a first step, the scientists modeled the atmosphere of typical Kepler stars in the presence of a magnetic field. In a second step, they then generated "artificial" observational data from these calculations. As a comparison with the real data showed, by including the magnetic field, the Kepler data is successfully reproduced.

The team also extended its considerations to data from the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope is able to split the light of distant stars into its various wavelengths and thus search for the characteristic signs of certain molecules in the atmosphere of the discovered planets. As it turns out, the magnetic field of the parent star influences the stellar limb darkening differently at different wavelengths - and should therefore be taken into account in future evaluations in order to achieve even more precise results.

From telescopes to models

"In the past decades and years, the way to move forward in exoplanet research was to improve the hardware, the space telescopes designed to search for and characterize new worlds. The James Webb Space Telescope has pushed this development to new limits", says Alexander Shapiro from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. "The next step is now to improve and refine the models to interpret this excellent data", he adds.

To further advance this development, the researchers now want to extend their analyses to stars that are clearly different from the Sun. In addition, their findings offer the possibility of using the light curves of stars with exoplanets to infer the strength of the stellar magnetic field, which is otherwise often hard to measure.


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