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Exoplanet Properties Activity

Exoplanet Properties Activity

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A lab activity for an astrobiology class, designed to be done over the course of a 3 hour lab session. Requires covering Kepler's law, conservation of momentum, the concept of a habitable zone, unit conversion, escape velocity, and thermal motions.
A lab activity for an astrobiology class, designed to be done over the course of a 3 hour lab session. Requires covering Kepler's law, conservation of momentum, the concept of a habitable zone, unit conversion, escape velocity, and thermal motions.

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Published by: Christopher De Vries on Nov 02, 2010
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11/02/2010

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Exoplanet Properties
1 Introduction
How do astronomers learn so much about a planet just by watching how a star wiggles around? I couldlecture a couple of days and explain it, but I am not sure it would really sink in, so instead we will find outwhat we can about an exoplanet by following the same steps astronomers take. Here is our basic scenario:The star HD4308 is a K0 star with an apparent magnitude of 6.54. It is located in the constellation Tucanaat a distance of 21.9 pc. Observations taken from the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 meter telescopeat La Sillia Observatory with the HARPS eschelle spectrograph over between September 7, 2003 and July28, 2005 indicate that this star has a slight wobble, most likely due to a planetary companion. The radialvelocity of the star for each observation is shown in figure1.These data indicate that the orbital periodof the star-planet system is 15.56 days.Figure 1: Intermediate season of HARPS radial velocities for HD4308. The best fit of the data givesan orbital period of 15.56 days for the planet (from Udry et al. 2006. “The HARPS search for southernextra-solar planets V.”
Astronomy & Astrophysics
447: 361–367)
 
Exoplanet Properties 
2
2 Orbital Distance
The first priority is to find the average distance between the star and the planet. We can use a generalizationof Kepler’s law to find this information. This general Kepler’s law states that if two objects, masses
A
and
B
are orbiting eachother than their orbital period (
), measured in years and average distance (
a
)between the star and planet, measured in astronomical units, will follow the equation
A
+
B
=
a
3
2
.
(1)Unfortunately it is at this point where you can get stuck. After all we don’t know the mass of the starplus the planet yet, and the period is given in days. We can get around these little problems though.1. Convert the period to years, there are conversion factors in the appendix.2. Find the mass of HD4308 using its spectral class. A table of properties of Main sequence stars is inthe appendix.3. Assume that the mass of the planet is negligible compared with the star. Solve for the average distance(
a
) between the star and planet using the equation above. We will check that this assumption isvalid later.Assuming the mass of the planet is small we have found how far apart the star and planet are. Nowwe can start to explore some interesting properties.
3 Habitability
If we assume that life on other planets will depend on the presence of liquid water located on the surface of a planet as it does on Earth, then there is a limited zone around a star that can support life. This zone iscalled the habitable zone. Since this depends only on the amount of energy provided by the star, it variesdepending on the spectral class, or mass of the star. Figure2shows the range of distances from differentMain sequence stars in which a planet can have liquid surface water.
 
Exoplanet Properties 
3Figure 2: Habitable zone for Main sequence stars (from NASA’s Kepler mission
).1. What is the range of the habitable zone for the star HD4308? .2. Is the planet too close to the star to support liquid surface water? within the habitable zone? toofar from the star to support liquid surface water?Oh well, we still don’t even know what kind of planet it is. Let’s delve deeper.
4 Planetary Mass
Now we are ready to estimate the mass of this planet. We will use the principle of conservation of momentum. Basically the star and its planet exert constant tugs of equal force on each other. Since the

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