Monday, July 29, 2013


Stars have no privacy. Not only does NASA unashamedly collect extensive records of star’s data, they’re not even denying they do. NASA’s surveillance program has the sole intent to stare at stars, and to stare intensely, just for the sake of collecting knowledge.

NASA’s Kepler satellite has been looking for more than three years at a small patch of the Milkyway that hosts an estimated 145,000 stars similar to our own sun. The data that Kepler gathered, and still gathers, is analyzed for transits of planets that temporarily block part of the star’s surface and diminish its emission. The precision by which this detection can meanwhile been done is simply amazing. The Kepler mission so far found more than 2000 planet candidates that are now subject to closer investigation.

Ray Jayawardhana gave a great lecture on exoplanets at Nordita’s recent workshop for science writers, slides are here. The progress in the field in the last decades can’t be called anything but stellar.

To see just how much progress has been made, look at page 13 of Ray's second lecture. You see there a time-series of measurements of the flux from some star observed with Kepler. You clearly see the dips when then planet covers part of the surface, a decrease that isn’t more than a tenth of a percent.

Image: Lisa Esteves.

A decade ago that would have been an amazing observation all by itself. Now look at the (red marked) data taken between the transits. If the planet doesn’t cover part of the star’s surface it will reflect light that is in principle also observable. This reflection should be largest when the planet is just about to vanish behind the star, and then dip. That means there should be a fine-structure in the flux between the transits, at about two orders of magnitude smaller still than the already small transit signal. And in fact, the data and data analysis is meanwhile so good that even the vanishing of the planet behind the star can be measured, as you can see on page 14 of Ray's slides

Image: Lisa Esteves.

I went away from Ray’s lecture thinking I should read his book, but was also left wondering if not the close monitoring of the stars should pick up sunspot activity and what we know about solar cycles of stars other than our own.

So I looked for literature and found two good reviews on starspots. A Living Review by Svetlana Berdyugina and an Astronomy and Astrophysics Review by Klaus Strassmeier. In comparison to exoplanets, starspots seem to be a fairly small research area. For those of you who don’t want to dig through 90+ pages and for my own record, here are the most interesting facts that I learned from my reading
  • Prior to the Kepler mission, about 500 spotted stars were known and had been analyzed. (I expect that this number will go up dramatically when the Kepler data is taken into account.)
  • That starspots exist was first proposed in 1667 by the French astronomer Ismael Bouillau.
  • The first starspots were recorded in the 1940s, but not recognized as such. In the late 60s and early 70s, several research groups independently proposed star spots as an explanation for certain types of light variability of stars that had been observed.
  • Some white dwarfs show spectral variations on a timescale of hours and days that are believed to be caused by sunspots. Similar structures are probably present on the surfaces of neutron stars as well.
  • Monitoring star spots allows to extract the rotation period of the star. According to presently existing models of stellar evolution, the rotation of stars changes with mass and age. Star spots can thus provide relevant data to find out which of these models is correct and thereby teach us how stars like our own evolve.
  • Doppler imaging of the stars emission spectrum allows in principle to reconstruct the latitude of the spot, though in practice reconstruction can be difficult.
  • There’s two different types of spots. The spots at low to mid latitude that we know from the sun, and polar spots that cover a pole of the star. The polar spots are thought to be caused by magnetic fields produced by a distinctly different mechanism than the other spots.
  • The polar spots can be HUGE. Look at this amazing image that is a reconstruction from Doppler imaging. This polar spot is about 10,000 larger than typical spots on our sun:

    Image: Strassmeier, Astron. Astrophys.,347, 225–234 (1999)
    In: Berdyugina, "Starspots: A Key to the Stellar Dynamo"

  • Out of 65 stars whose surface emission was analyzed with the Doppler technique, 36 had polar spots.
  • The polar spots can be very long lived and survive up to a decade.
  • There seems to exist no strong correlation between temperature and size of the star spots.
  • Most spotted stars have a cycle similar to that of the sun with a period in the range 3-21 years. Some stars probably have longer cycles, but existing observations don’t yet allow extracting it. But about a third of the observed stars seem to have no cycle or have one with large variations between the periods.
  • The lifetime of a sunspot is probably not determined by the decay of its magnetic field but by the surface shear due to differential rotation.
  • Spots on tidally locked binary systems live longer (on the average several months) than spots on single main-sequence stars (on the average several weeks).
  • Solar-type stars show the most sunspot activity when in the surface temperature is in the range 4900 - 6400 K.
  • Some starspots spin. This has not (yet) been observed on our sun’s spots.
There’s much that astrophysicists can learn about our own sun from other stars like our own. It seems to me this scientific invasion of solar privacy deserves to be called intelligence service :o)


  1. "It seems to me this scientific invasion of solar privacy deserves to be called..." paparapsis!

  2. I don't mean to sound rude.... but isn't this work rather boring? I mean, isn't the existence of planets around other stars exactly what you would expect? Now if they found that *no* star other than our own had planets, *that* would be interesting... but this stuff is like mounting an expensive expedition to the Amazon to find out whether the trees there are green.

  3. Rastus,

    Your comment is an interesting example for what is called hindsight bias in the psychology literature. If you look at the history of the field, you'll find that until two decades ago or so, this was totally not what most scientists expected. Systems like our own, with several planets, one of which of Earth size and in the "habitable zone" where thought to be rare.

    I'm generally not a fan of "mediocrity" arguments which isn't anything but an attempt to make the non-scientific statement "that's what we expect" into a scientific statement. "What we expect" doesn't replace collecting data and looking at the facts. Sure, people expected something then, and they expect something now, but it's one thing to believe and another thing to know. Another interesting question (imo) is whether our sun is typical. (See eg this recent paper.)

    I'll not go about and advertise the Kepler mission because it's not my terrain. I'll just encourage you to look at the website to see what has been learned from the observations so far. And no, I have not the slightest intention to start working on exoplanets. I'll leave it to you to interpret what that means for just how interesting I think this research is...



  4. "existence of planets around other stars"

    it's not equivalent to

    "Systems like our own, with several planets, one of which of Earth size and in the "habitable zone" where thought to be rare"

  5. I think it's fair to say that no planets would be the more unexpected find. Maybe what was found was not completely expected, but there were no really robust predictions. So this is interesting (if one is interested in such things), but not game-changing. I agree with Sabine though that one does need to confirm one's expectations.

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  9. Hi Bee,

    Thanks for a fascinating post. I learned a lot.

    I certainly agree with your response to Rastus on hindsight bias. Afraid it plays a huge role in physics.

    I'm old enough to remember when it was widely believed that planets around stars might be very rare -- a popular extrapolation from the hard fact that no one had seen any. It was a common remark that we should consider ourselves extremely lucky to find ourselves near a star with planets, and one where life is possible.

    My high school Earth Science teacher also told us how amazing it is that that Earth has exactly properties needed for humans to exist. For example, any less less oxygen and we wouldn't have enough to breath, any more and our lungs would burn up.

    (Somehow it didn't occur to him that life arose here in the absence of oxygen and that evolution might have adapted us to the present level.)



  10. Hi Kris,

    You make me feel very old now :p Best,


  11. IMO the polar spots could have its origin in broken CP invariance and there should be a correlation with star rotation direction.

  12. Sounds a bit of a stretch Zephir, but anyway, check out

  13. We have some indirect evidence of it already, as the Sun affects the speed of weak-force mediated decay of radioactive elements inside of space-probes around Sun in period, which corresponds the period of Sun core rotation. It means, the Sun behaves like sorta neutrino pulsar, which ejects a stream of low energy neutrinos in polar direction at one of its ends preferentially. It's analogy of black hole with asymmetric jets. BTW Even the Earth geoid is not fully symmetric, as Columbus knew already.

  14. Regarding the flip-flop cycles of common sun spots, it's highly probable, they're driven with center of mass of solar system, which is controlled mostly with Jupiter planet. The plasma current revolve this center of mass and they're dragged with Coriolis force above and bellow Sun equator. Once the center of mass appears beneath the surface of Sun, this natural circulation will stop and the Sun accumulates its energy in period of Solar minimum in similar way, like the pot of hot water silently boiled inside of microwave oven. IMO many short-term climatic cycles are driven with mutual position of planets inside of solar system in this way.

  15. What a nice, simple, and refreshing post... You made something that could be thought on the surface to be kind of boring and made me awake before my morning coffee. Inspiration for the day! Will certainly go for the book and the literature...

  16. The first paragraph about NASA spying on stars was great. (The rest was interesting also.)


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