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Unlocking Clues to a Distant Planet’s History

Harlan J. Smith Telescope dome

Stars shine in an inky night sky above the open dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_cta h2=”Feb 20, 2020 Update:”]As of February 2020, The Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) is now known as the Lowell Discovery Telescope (LDT).[/vc_cta][/vc_column][/vc_row]

10 June 2019

Working on IGRINS

Graduate student Kyle Kaplan works on the IGRINS instrument mounted on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

St. Louis — CI Tau b is a paradoxical planet, but new research about its mass, brightness and the carbon monoxide in its atmosphere is starting to answer questions about how a planet so large could have formed around a star that’s only 2 million years old.

Today, new research by a team of astronomers from The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, Rice University, and Lowell Observatory was announced at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Rice’s Christopher Johns-Krull and Lowell’s Lisa Prato presented findings from a four-year near-infrared spectroscopic analysis of light from CI Tau b, a close-orbiting giant exoplanet, or “hot Jupiter,” in a nine-day orbit around its parent star about 450 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

“The exciting thing is that we are able to detect light directly from the planet, and it’s the first time that’s been done for a close-in planet around a star this young,” said Johns-Krull, Rice professor of physics and astronomy and co-author of a study that’s slated for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. “The most valuable way to learn how planets form is to study planets, like CI Tau b, that are either still forming or have just formed.”

For decades, most astronomers believed giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn formed far from their stars over periods of 10 million years or more. But the discovery of dozens of “hot Jupiters” led to new theoretical models that describe how such planets might form.

Johns-Krull said CI Tau b’s age made it the perfect candidate for observation with the Immersion Grating Infrared Spectrograph (IGRINS), a unique, high-resolution instrument that was used during observations of CI Tau b from McDonald Observatory’s 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope and Lowell Observatory’s 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope.

IGRINS was designed by study co-author Daniel Jaffe of The University of Texas at Austin along with the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). The instrument uses a silicon-based diffraction grating to improve both the resolution and number of near-infrared spectral bands that can be observed from distant objects like CI Tau b and its parent star.

“Infrared spectroscopy is ideal for studying exoplanet atmospheres and young star evolution,” said team member Gregory Mace of UT Austin. “The young planet around CI Tau is a prime example of what silicon immersion spectrographs can achieve.”

Mace helped build IGRINS and has managed its travels. The instrument was moved from McDonald to Lowell Observatory midway through the study.

Because each atomic element and molecule in a star emits light from a unique set of wavelengths, astronomers can look for specific signatures, or spectral lines, to see if an element is present in a distant star or planets. Spectral lines can also reveal the temperature and density of a star and how fast it’s moving.

Lowell’s Lisa Prato said the research team used the spectral lines from carbon monoxide to distinguish the light emitted by the planet from the light emitted by the nearby star.

“Many of the spectral lines that are in the planet are also in the star,” she said. “If both the planet and star were stationary, their spectral lines would all blend together, and we wouldn’t be able to tell what was from the star and what was from the planet. But because the planet rapidly orbits the star, its lines shift back and forth dramatically. We can subtract out the star’s lines and see only the lines from the planet. And from those, we can determine how bright the planet is, relative to the star, which tells us something about how it formed.”

That’s because the brightness of a star or planet depends upon both its size and temperature.

“Direct observational evidence of the mass and brightness of CI Tau b is particularly useful because we also know it orbits a very young star,” said Rice graduate student Laura Flagg, the lead author of the forthcoming study. “Most of the hot Jupiters we’ve found are orbiting middle-aged stars. CI Tau’s age gives a tight constraint for putting models to the test: Can they produce a planet this bright and this massive in so little time?”

Flagg’s analysis of spectral lines from carbon monoxide showed that CI Tau b has a mass of 11.6 Jupiters and is about 134 times fainter than its parent star. Prato said that provides strong evidence that it formed via a “hot start,” a theoretical model that describes how gravitational instabilities could form giant planets more rapidly than traditional models.

Prato said the new study provides a unique empirical yardstick by which to measure competing theories.

“At about 2 million years old, CI Tau b is by far the youngest hot Jupiter directly detected,” she said. “We now have a mass and brightness for it — the only directly measured mass and brightness for a young hot Jupiter — and that provides very strong tests for planet-formation models.”

Additional co-authors include Kendall Sullivan of McDonald Observatory and Larissa Nofi and Joe Llama of Lowell Observatory. The research was supported by UT Austin, Rice, the National Science Foundation, KASI, NASA, and Lowell Observatory.

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Note to editors: The research paper is available at:

Science contact:
Dr. Gregory Mace
Department of Astronomy
The University of Texas at Austin