Photo of Wes Traub and Steve Unwin
New HR 8799 bcde near-infrared spectra were recently announced by two groups of friendly competitors. One group, Oppenheimer et al., observed 8799 b,c,d,e in J and H bands with the P-1640 system at Palomar, including the Palm-3000 AO system, an apodized-pupil, Lyot-type coronagraph, a Mach-Zehnder interferometer calibrator, and an integral field spectrograph, finding that the b and d planets seem to match the spectra of an L-type brown dwarf, the c planet matching a T-type brown dwarf, and the e planet resembling a Saturn spectrum. Another group, Konopacky et al., observed 8799 b,c in K band with Keck II, the OSIRIS integral field spectrograph, and adaptive optics imaging, finding spectral evidence for CO and H2O, but not CH4, which they interpret as being consistent with a formation scenario that includes core accretion but not gravitational instability

A detection of what might possibly be a protoplanet caught in the act of being formed, and still embedded in its optically thick birth disk, was reported by Quanz et al. The star is the Herbig Ae/Be star, HD 100546. The projected separation is about 68 AU, similar to HR 8799 b, re-emphasizing that a gas giant can form at a large separation from its star.

The smallest Kepler planet yet found is Kepler-37 b, by Barclay et al., with a radius of 0.30 Earth, and a period of 13 days. For comparison, the radius of the Moon is 0.27, and Mercury is 0.38 Earth. The target star is quite bright (9.7 mag) and nearby (53 pc), the 4th nearest Kepler star, so this record may stand for a long time.

On the popular side, National Geographic Magazine ran an article in January called “Heading Off to the Stars”. The focus was on the difficulty of interstellar travel, requiring spaceships the size of an entire US state. This is a good shot of realism for the public, who might be misled by some of the exoplanet announcements that many of us enthusiastically make talking about “nearby” stars. We know what that word means, but it is not the same as the normal English meaning. Let’s be cautious about this.

We were still surprised by a recent paper making a pretty good claim for the idea that Jupiter exerts an influence on the occurrence of sunspots. The evidence cited is a 9000-year geologic record of cosmogenic radionuclitides (10Be and 14C). If Jupiter can do this at 5.2 AU, just imagine what a hot Jupiter could do to its star!

Coronagraphs seem to be getting more attention these days. Not only were coronagraph designs (both internal and external) featured at a Huntsville workshop on the topic of possible future uses for NASA’s 2.4-m telescopes, but they were also highlighted in a Nature news article that focused on that same meeting.