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Detection and Characterization Methods of Exoplanets  

Nuno C. Santos, Susana C.C. Barros, Olivier D.S. Demangeon, and João P. Faria

Is the Solar System unique, or are planets ubiquitous in the universe? The answer to this long-standing question implies the understanding of planet formation, but perhaps more relevant, the observational assessment of the existence of other worlds and their frequency in the galaxy. The detection of planets orbiting other suns has always been a challenging task. Fortunately, technological progress together with significant development in data reduction and analysis processes allowed astronomers to finally succeed. The methods used so far are mostly based on indirect approaches, able to detect the influence of the planets on the stellar motion (dynamical methods) or the planet’s shadow as it crosses the stellar disk (transit method). For a growing number of favorable cases, direct imaging has also been successful. The combination of different methods also allowed probing planet interiors, composition, temperature, atmospheres, and orbital architecture. Overall, one can confidently state that planets are common around solar-type stars, low mass planets being the most frequent among them. Despite all the progress, the discovery and characterization of temperate Earth-like worlds, similar to the Earth in both mass and composition and thus potential islands of life in the universe, is still a challenging task. Their low amplitude signals are difficult to detect and are often submerged by the noise produced by different instrumentation sources and astrophysical processes. However, the dawn of a new generation of ground and space-based instruments and missions is promising a new era in this domain.

Article

Planet Formation Through Gravitational Instabilities  

Ken Rice

It is now widely accepted that planets form in discs around young stars, with the most widely accepted planet formation scenario being a bottom-up process typically referred to as “core accretion.” The basic process involves a core growing through the accumulation of solids and, if it gets massive enough while there is still gas present in the disc, undergoing a runaway gas accretion phase to form a Jupiter-like gas giant. However, early models of this process suggested that the formation timescale for a Jupiter-like gas giant exceeded the lifetime of the gas disc, suggesting that massive, gas giant planets form via some alternative process. One possibility is that they form via direct gravitational collapse. During the earliest stages of star formation, the disc around a young star can have a mass that is comparable to that of the central protostar and can be susceptible to the growth of a gravitational instability. One outcome of such an instability is that the disc fragments into bound objects that can then contract to become gas giant planets. This would happen very early in the star formation process and is very rapid, overcoming the timescale problem. Subsequent work has, however, both illustrated that core accretion may operate on timescales shorter than disc lifetimes and that disc fragmentation is very unlikely to operate in the inner parts of planet-forming discs. Hence, it is very unlikely that disc fragmentation plays a role in the direct formation of close-in exoplanets. However, disc fragmentation may operate at large orbital radii and is expected to preferentially form either massive gas giant planets or brown dwarfs. Therefore, it is intriguing that exactly such objects are starting to be directly imaged at orbital radii where disc fragmentation may operate. Additionally, even if a self-gravitating phase doesn’t play a direct role in the formation of gas giant planets, it may play an indirect role in the planet formation process. The spiral density waves that develop due to the gravitational instability can act to enhance the local density of solids, potentially accelerating their collisional growth or leading to the direct gravitational collapse of the solid component of the disc. This could then provide some of the building blocks for planets that later form via core accretion.