Prior to the discovery of exoplanets, astronomers assumed that our solar system's configuration was typical. But now, some 1,715 exoplanets later, we know that we're far from ordinary. So what passes for 'normal' in the annals of solar systems?
The discovery of exoplanets has significantly increased our appreciation for the diversity of planetary systems in nature. Doppler planet searches revealed that many giant planets orbit close to their host star or in highly eccentric orbits. These and subsequent observations inspired new theories of planet formation that invoke gravitation interactions in multiple planet systems to explain the excitation of orbital eccentricities and even short-period giant planets.
Recently, NASA’s Kepler mission has identified over 300 systems with multiple transiting planet candidates, including many potentially rocky planets. Most of these systems include multiple planets with closely spaced orbits and sizes between that of Earth and Neptune. These systems represent yet another new and unexpected class of planetary systems and provide an opportunity to test the theories developed to explain the properties of giant exoplanets.
Presently, we have limited knowledge about such planetary systems, mostly about their sizes and orbital periods. With the advent of long-term, nearly continuous monitoring by Kepler, the method of transit timing variations (TTVs) has blossomed as a new technique for characterizing the gravitational effects of mutual planetary perturbations for hundreds of planets.
TTVs can provide precise, but complex, constraints on planetary masses, densities, and orbits, even for planetary systems with faint host stars. In the coming years, astronomers will translate TTV observations into increasingly powerful constraints on the formation and orbital evolution of planetary systems with low-mass planets. Between TTVs, improved Doppler surveys, high-contrast imaging campaigns, and microlensing surveys, astronomers can look forward to a much better understanding of planet formation in the coming decade.
Via Luca Baptista, Dr. Stefan Gruenwald