Newswise — Osaka, Japan – Although thousands of planets have been discovered in the Milky Way, most reside less than a few thousand light years from Earth. Yet our Galaxy is more than 100,000 light years across, making it difficult to investigate the Galactic distribution of planets. But now, a research team has found a way to overcome this hurdle.
In a study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers led by Osaka University and NASA have used a combination of observations and modeling to determine how the planet-hosting probability varies with the distance from the Galactic center.
The observations were based on a phenomenon called gravitational microlensing, whereby objects such as planets act as lenses, bending and magnifying the light from distant stars. This effect can be used to detect cold planets similar to Jupiter and Neptune throughout the Milky Way, from the Galactic disk to the Galactic bulge—the central region of our Galaxy.
“Gravitational microlensing currently provides the only way to investigate the distribution of planets in the Milky Way,” says Daisuke Suzuki, co-author of the study. “But until now, little is known mainly because of the difficulty in measuring the distance to planets that are more than 10,000 light years from the Sun.”
To solve this problem, the researchers instead considered the distribution of a quantity that describes the relative motion of the lens and distant light source in planetary microlensing. By comparing the distribution observed in microlensing events with that predicted by a Galactic model, the research team could infer the Galactic distribution of planets.
The results show that the planetary distribution is not strongly dependent on the distance from the Galactic center. Instead, cold planets orbiting far from their stars seem to exist universally in the Milky Way. This includes the Galactic bulge, which has a very different environment to the solar neighborhood, and where the presence of planets has long been uncertain.
“Stars in the bulge region are older and are located much closer to each other than stars in the solar neighborhood,” explains lead author of the study Naoki Koshimoto. “Our finding that planets reside in both these stellar environments could lead to an improved understanding of how planets form and the history of planet formation in the Milky Way.”
According to the researchers, the next step should be to combine these results with measurements of microlens parallax or lens brightness—two other important quantities associated with planetary microlensing.
The article, “No large dependence of planet frequency on Galactocentric distance,” was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3847/2041-8213/ac17ec
About Osaka University
Osaka University was founded in 1931 as one of the seven imperial universities of Japan and is now one of Japan's leading comprehensive universities with a broad disciplinary spectrum. This strength is coupled with a singular drive for innovation that extends throughout the scientific process, from fundamental research to the creation of applied technology with positive economic impacts. Its commitment to innovation has been recognized in Japan and around the world, being named Japan's most innovative university in 2015 (Reuters 2015 Top 100) and one of the most innovative institutions in the world in 2017 (Innovative Universities and the Nature Index Innovation 2017). Now, Osaka University is leveraging its role as a Designated National University Corporation selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to contribute to innovation for human welfare, sustainable development of society, and social transformation.