Significant Twinkles

Cathleen’s got a bit of fire in her eye. “Good exposition, Jeremy, but only just barely on‑assignment. You squeezed in your exoplanet search material at the very end. <sigh> Okay, for our next presentation we have two of our freshmen, Madison and C‑J.”

“Hello, everybody, I’m Madison. I fell in love with Science while watching Nova and Star Trek with my family. Doctor O’Meara’s Astronomy class is my first step into the real thing. C‑J?”

“Hi, I’m C‑J, like she said. What started me on Astronomy was just looking at the night sky. My family’s ranch is officially in dark sky country, but really it’s so not dark. Jeremy’s also from the High Plateau and we got to talking. We see a gazillion stars up there, probably more stars than the Greeks did because they were looking up through humid sea-level air. On a still night our dry air’s so clear you can read by the light of those stars. I want to know what’s up there.”

“Me, too, but I’m even more interested in who‘s up there living on some exoplanet somewhere. How do we find them? We’ve just heard about spectroscopy and astrometry. C‑J and I will be talking about photometry, measuring the total light from something. You can use it even with light sources that are too dim to pick out a spectrum. Photometry is especially useful for finding transits.”

“A transit is basically an eclipse, an exoplanet getting between us and its star—”

“Like the one we had in 2017. It was so awesome when that happened. All the bird and bug noises hushed and the corona showed all around where the Sun was hiding. I was only 12 then but it changed my Universe when they showed us on TV how the Moon is exactly the right size and distance to cover the Sun.”

“Incredible coincidence, right? Almost exactly 100% occultation. If the Moon were much bigger or closer to us we’d never see the corona’s complicated structure. We wouldn’t have that evidence and we’d know so much less about how the Sun works. But even with JWST technology we can’t get near that much detail from other stars.”

“Think of trying to read a blog post on your computer, but your only tool is a light meter that gives you one number for the whole screen. Our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 20% larger than our Sun but it’s 4.3 lightyears away. I worked out that at that distance its image would be about 8½ milliarcseconds across. C‑J found that JWST’s cameras can’t resolve details any finer than 8 times that. All we can see of that star or any star is the light the whole system gives off.”

“So here’s where we’re going. We can’t see exoplanets because they’re way too small and too far away, but if an exoplanet transits a star we’re studying, it’ll block some of the light. The question is, how much, and the answer is, not very. Exoplanets block starlight according to their silhouette area. Jupiter’s diameter is about a tenth the Sun’s so it’s area is 1% of the Sun’s. When Jupiter transits the Sun‑‑‑”

“From the viewpoint of some other solar system, of course—”

“Doesn’t matter. Jupiter could get in between the Sun and Saturn; the arithmetic works out the same. The maximum fraction of light Jupiter could block would be its area against the Sun’s area and that’s still 1%.”

“Well, it does matter, because of perspective. If size was the only variable, the Moon is so much smaller than the Sun we’d never see a total eclipse. The star‑planet distance has to be much smaller than the star‑us distance, okay?”

“Alright, but that’s always the way with exoplanets. Even with a big planet and a small star, we don’t expect to measure more than a few percent change. You need really good photometry to even detect that.”

“And really good conditions. Everyone knows how atmospheric turbulence makes star images twinkle—”

“Can’t get 1% accuracy on an image that’s flickering by 50%—”

“And that’s why we had to get stable observatories outside the atmosphere before we could find exoplanets photometrically.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Needle in A Needlestack

“How’d they find that far-away star, Cathleen? Seems like you’d have to know just where to point your telescope.”

“It’s worse than that, Al, first you’ve got to find that telescope, or more precisely, its lens. We can’t simply swing a black hole or galaxy cluster into position for a good look at something interesting. No, we have to discover lensing objects that magnify good stuff beyond them. The good news is that some of those are out there, but the bad news is that the sky is cluttered with far more objects that don’t play the game we want. This research team appears to have hit paydirt but they did it with humungous power shovels and heavy‑duty panning techniques.”

“Impressive metaphor, Cathleen. Could you un‑metaphor it for us?”

“Sure, Sy. The power shovels are Hubble and Spitzer, both of which piled up beaucoodles of data from decades of infrared observing time.”

“I thought Hubble was designed for visible and UV surveillance.”

“It is, mostly, but since 2009 its instrument suite included WFC3, a camera that’s sensitive out to 1700 nanometers and covers a square 2 arcminutes on a side. That’s a lot, by big‑telescope astronomy standards.”

“Wait, arcminutes?”

“That’s right, Mr Feder. We astronomers have trouble with distances but we’re good at measuring angles. The Moon’s about a degree across. One degree is sixty arcminutes, next step down is sixty arcseconds per arcminute. After that we go semi‑metric, milliarcseconds and so forth. One WFC3 pixel records a patch of sky 130 milliarcseconds across. JWST‘s NIRCam instrument has a resolution twice as sharp. Anyway, Hubble‘s 1700‑nanometer limit is plenty good enough to pick up 120‑nanometer hydrogen light that’s been stretched out by a factor of z=2.8. Distance and stretch correlate; the lens that highlighted Earendel and its Sunrise Arc for NASA and Vinnie is that far away.”

“How far away?”

“It’s tricky to answer that. The spectra we see let us measure an object’s z‑factor, which by way of the Doppler effect tells us how fast the object is moving away. Hubble’s constant ties that to distance, sort of. My convenient rule of thumb is that an object whose z is near 2 is running away at 80% of lightspeed and on the average is about 55 trillion lightyears from us but don’t quote me because relativity complicates matters. Using the same dicey calculation I estimated the lens and Earendel velocities at 87% and 96% of lightspeed, which would put their ‘proper distances‘ around 60 and 66 trillion lightyears away. And no, I’m not going to go into ‘proper distance‘ versus ‘comoving distance‘.”

“Let’s get back to your metaphor, Cathleen. I get that Hubble and Spitzer and such generated a ton of data. What’s the panning part about?”

“Well, in the old days it would have been hired hands and graduate students spending years peering at dots on photographic plates. These days it’s computers, thank Heaven. The research team used a series of programs to filter their digital data. The software had to decide which dots are stars or noise specks and which are galaxies or arcs. Then it picked out the reddest red galaxy images, then clusters of galaxy images at the same redness level that are near each other in space, then clusters with arcs around them. I said that WFC3 covers a square 2 arcminutes on a side, remember? The sky, both hemispheres, contains almost 2½ million squares like that, although the surveys didn’t get all of them. Anyhow, after burning through cubic acres of computer time the team found 41 deep red lensing clusters.”

“Only 41.”


We ponder that for a minute, then Vinnie pipes up. “Wait, the dots are in color?”

“No, but these images are generally taken through a filter that transmits only a known narrow wavelength range, infrared or whatever. Using relative dot intensity at several different wavelengths you can create ‘false color‘ images. When you find something, you know where to point spectroscopic tools to be sure you’ve found the good stuff.”

“Like a star shining less than a billion years after the Big Bang.”


Image adapted from NASA and STScI

~~ Rich Olcott