Monday, February 16, 2015

Determining the Orbits of Exoplanets and Brown Dwarfs, Including Fomalhaut b

Constraining the orbits of sub-stellar companions imaged over short orbital arcs


Pearce et al


Imaging a star's companion at multiple epochs over a short orbital arc provides only four of the six coordinates required for a unique orbital solution. Probability distributions of possible solutions are commonly generated by Monte Carlo (MCMC) analysis, but these are biased by priors and may not probe the full parameter space. We suggest alternative methods to characterise possible orbits, which compliment the MCMC technique. Firstly the allowed ranges of orbital elements are prior-independent, and we provide means to calculate these ranges without numerical analyses. Hence several interesting constraints (including whether a companion even can be bound, its minimum possible semi-major axis and its minimum eccentricity) may be quickly computed using our relations as soon as orbital motion is detected. We also suggest an alternative to posterior probability distributions as a means to present possible orbital elements, namely contour plots of elements as functions of line of sight coordinates. These plots are prior-independent, readily show degeneracies between elements and allow readers to extract orbital solutions themselves. This approach is particularly useful when there are other constraints on the geometry, for example if a companion's orbit is assumed to be aligned with a disc. As examples we apply our methods to several imaged sub-stellar companions including Fomalhaut b, and for the latter object we show how different origin hypotheses affect its possible orbital solutions. We also examine visual companions of A- and G-type main sequence stars in the Washington Double Star Catalogue, and show that ≳50 per cent must be unbound.

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