Media Releases

Distant planetary system is a super-sized solar system

March 14, 2013

TORONTO, ON – A team of astronomers, includ­ing Quinn Konopacky of the Dun­lap Insti­tute for Astron­o­my & Astro­physics, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, has made the most detailed exam­i­na­tion yet of the atmos­phere of a Jupiter-like plan­et beyond our Solar Sys­tem.

Accord­ing to Konopacky, “We have been able to observe this plan­et in unprece­dent­ed detail because of the advanced instru­men­ta­tion we are using on the Keck II tele­scope, our ground­break­ing observ­ing and data-pro­cess­ing tech­niques, and because of the nature of the plan­e­tary sys­tem.”

Konopacky is lead author of the paper describ­ing the team’s find­ings, to be pub­lished March 14th in Sci­ence Express, and March 22nd in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

The team, using a high-res­o­lu­tion imag­ing spec­tro­graph called OSIRIS, uncov­ered the chem­i­cal fin­ger­prints of spe­cif­ic mol­e­cules, reveal­ing a cloudy atmos­phere con­tain­ing car­bon monox­ide and water vapour. “With this lev­el of detail,” says Travis Bar­man, a Low­ell Obser­va­to­ry astronomer and co-author of the paper, “we can com­pare the amount of car­bon to the amount of oxy­gen present in the planet’s atmos­phere, and this chem­i­cal mix pro­vides clues as to how the entire plan­e­tary sys­tem formed.”

There has been con­sid­er­able uncer­tain­ty about how sys­tems of plan­ets form, with two lead­ing mod­els, called core accre­tion and grav­i­ta­tion­al insta­bil­i­ty. Plan­e­tary prop­er­ties, such as the com­po­si­tion of a planet’s atmos­phere, are clues as to whether a sys­tem formed accord­ing to one mod­el or the oth­er.

“This is the sharpest spec­trum ever obtained of an extra­so­lar plan­et,” accord­ing to co-author Bruce Mac­in­tosh of the Lawrence Liv­er­more Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry. “This shows the pow­er of direct­ly imag­ing a plan­e­tary sys­tem. It is the exquis­ite res­o­lu­tion afford­ed by these new obser­va­tions that has allowed us to real­ly begin to probe plan­et for­ma­tion.”

The spec­trum reveals that the car­bon to oxy­gen ratio is con­sis­tent with the core accre­tion sce­nario, the mod­el thought to explain the for­ma­tion of our Solar Sys­tem.

The core accre­tion mod­el pre­dicts that large gas giant plan­ets form at great dis­tances from the cen­tral star, and small­er rocky plan­ets clos­er in, as in our Solar Sys­tem. It is rocky plan­ets, not too far, nor close to the star, that are prime can­di­dates for sup­port­ing life.

“The results sug­gest the HR 8799 sys­tem is like a scaled-up Solar Sys­tem,” says Konopacky. “And so, in addi­tion to the gas giants far from their par­ent star, it would not come as a sur­prise to find Earth-like plan­ets clos­er in.”

The plan­et, des­ig­nat­ed HR 8799c, is one of four gas giants known to orbit a star 130 light-years from Earth. The authors and their col­lab­o­ra­tors pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cov­ered HR 8799c and its three com­pan­ions back in 2008 and 2010. All the plan­ets are larg­er than any in our Solar Sys­tem, with mass­es three to sev­en times that of Jupiter. Their orbits are sim­i­lar­ly large when com­pared to our sys­tem. HR 8799c orbits 40 times far­ther from its par­ent star than the Earth orbits from the Sun; in our Solar Sys­tem, that would put it well beyond the realm of Nep­tune.

Konopacky and her team will con­tin­ue to study the super-sized plan­ets to learn more details about their nature and their atmos­pheres. Future obser­va­tions will be made using the recent­ly upgrad­ed OSIRIS instru­ment which uti­lizes a new dif­frac­tion grating—the key com­po­nent of the spec­tro­graph that sep­a­rates light accord­ing to wave­length, just like a prism. The new grat­ing was devel­oped at the Dun­lap Insti­tute and installed in the spec­tro­graph in Decem­ber 2012.

“These future obser­va­tions will tell us much more about the plan­ets in this sys­tem,” says Dun­lap Fel­low Konopacky. “And the more we learn about this dis­tant plan­e­tary sys­tem, the more we learn about our own.”

The Dun­lap Insti­tute for Astron­o­my & Astro­physics con­tin­ues the lega­cy of the David Dun­lap Obser­va­to­ry of devel­op­ing inno­v­a­tive astro­nom­i­cal instru­men­ta­tion, includ­ing instru­men­ta­tion for the largest tele­scopes in the world. The research of its fac­ul­ty and Dun­lap Fel­lows spans the depths of the Uni­verse, from the dis­cov­ery of exo­plan­ets, to the for­ma­tion of stars, the evo­lu­tion and nature of galax­ies, dark mat­ter, the Cos­mic Microwave Back­ground, and SETI. The insti­tute also con­tin­ues a strong com­mit­ment to devel­op­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of astronomers and fos­ter­ing pub­lic engage­ment in sci­ence.


To obtain a copy of the paper “Detec­tion of Car­bon Monox­ide and Water Absorp­tion Lines in an Exo­plan­et Atmos­phere”, con­tact the Sci­ence press pack­age team:

Tel: 202–326-6440

If you are reg­is­tered with AAAS, you can access the paper at

Full press release and the fol­low­ing images can be down­loaded from:
Pass­word: HR8799c

§  Artist’s ren­der­ing of the plan­e­tary sys­tem HR 8799 at an ear­ly stage in its evo­lu­tion, show­ing the plan­et HR 8799c, as well as a disk of gas and dust, and inte­ri­or plan­ets.

§  Dr. Quinn Konopacky, Dun­lap Fel­low, Dun­lap Insti­tute of Astron­o­my & Astro­physics, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Cana­da

§  One of the dis­cov­ery images of the sys­tem obtained at the Keck II tele­scope using the adap­tive optics sys­tem and NIRC2 Near-Infrared Imager. The rec­tan­gle indi­cates the field-of-view of the OSIRIS instru­ment.

§  Side-by-side com­par­i­son show­ing that the HR8799 sys­tem is like a scaled-up, super-sized ver­sion of the Solar Sys­tem

For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Dr. Quinn Konopacky
Dun­lap Fel­low
Dun­lap Insti­tute for Astron­o­my & Astro­physics
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-5465

Chris Sasa­ki
PIO; Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and New Media Spe­cial­ist
Dun­lap Insti­tute for Astron­o­my & Astro­physics
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–978-6613

For more infor­ma­tion: