My research focusses on the detection of brown dwarfs and giant planets with direct imaging, a method that allows to see these objects directly instead of observing their effects on their host stars. I am especially interested in looking at known planetary systems and isolated brown dwarfs (not orbiting stars) as a global population. Studying these objects as a broad family can tell us a lot about their fundamental properties, how they formed and evolved, or what to expect from their atmospheres. The work I conduct aims at achieving a more complete overview of the properties and demographics of these substellar populations, and to bridge observations and theory using statistical methods.


Project 1

Giant Planets around Brown Dwarfs

Using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), I discovered CFHTWIR-Oph 98 (Oph 98 for short), a curious starless binary system, consisting of two very low-mass objects located 450 light years away from Earth. The more massive component, Oph 98 A, is a young brown dwarf with a mass of 15 times that of Jupiter. It was found to host a giant planetary companion, Oph 98 B, only 8 times heavier than Jupiter, and separated by 200 times the Earth-Sun distance. This provides a rare example of two objects similar in many aspects to extra-solar giant planets, orbiting around each other with no parent star. 

Fontanive Oph 98

The young Oph 98 planetary-mass binary, with a wide 200-au separation (Fontanive et al. 2020)

Although Oph 98 A and B have masses, temperatures and atmospheres comparable to those of gas giant planets orbiting around young stars, they most likely formed like starsThe discovery of Oph 98 not only provides two new precious examples free-floating worlds analogous to giant exoplanets, but also proves that such extremely low-mass objects can have giant planetary companions, and that the processes that create binary stars operate on scaled-down versions all the way down to these planetary masses.

Project 2

Brown Dwarf Multiplicity Statistics

Several theories exist to explain the existence of brown dwarfs floating freely in space without a host star, but it is still unclear whether some of them are born like stars or rather like planets. Population studies provide very valuable insight into formation histories, making them critical for differentiating between proposed formation and evolution scenarios.

Fontanive et al. 2018

About half of Sun-like stars are in binary systems, with two stars orbiting each other. Smaller stars are less commonly in multiple systems, are in tighter binaries and show a clear tendency towards equal-mass systems. Using the Hubble Space Telescope images, I demonstrated that the trends seen in the binary statistics of stars continue across the substellar regime, persisting down to the very lowest-mass brown dwarfs.

This observed continuity between the binary frequencies and population distributions of star and brown dwarf binaries suggests a common formation mechanism for the stellar and substellar regimes, providing crucial information to test formation models.

Decreasing binary fraction with stellar mass into the brown dwarf regime (Fontanive et al. 2018)

Project 3

Precise Distances of Y Brown Dwarfs

The distance to an astronomical object is a fundamental property that is absolutely necessary to know in order to correctly interpret observations. Y dwarfs are the faintest and coldest type of brown dwarfs, and with similar masses and temperatures to giant exoplanets, provide ideal proxies to study planetary atmospheres. However, distances are very challenging to measure for such faint targetswhich is particularly problematic when trying to understand their complex characteristics.

Astrometry, the science of measuring positions and motions of celestial bodies, allows to estimate parallax angles, which are a direct measure of an object's distance from us. I devised a new method to improve the astrometric precision of Hubble observations in order to derive the most precise parallaxes for very faint Y dwarfs, by combining HST images taken over several years with the Gaia mission. These highly-precise distances will allow to robustly calibrate observations of Y dwarfs and study in great details the atmospheres of these pivotal giant planet analogues.

Bedin & Fontanive 2020

Brown dwarf motion in the sky over time in different HST images (Bedin & Fontanive 2020)

Project 4

Planets in Binary Stars

Stellar multiplicity is believed to influence planetary formation and migration, although the precise nature and extent of this role remain ambiguous. I conducted several surveys to test the impact of stellar binaries on the formation and evolution of various types of exoplanets, which provide important information to better understand planet formation and improve theoretical simulations.

In a first paper, I showed that stars hosting massive planets and brown dwarfs on very short separations are almost all found in multiple-star systems, demonstrating that binarity plays a crucial role in the existence of these planetary systems.

In another study, I compiled the largest list to date of exoplanets in stellar binaries. With this catalogue, I found that the properties of small and wide-orbit planets are not affected by the presence of companion stars, unlike high-mass close-in planets. I also show that very wide binary systems do not impact the planetary systems.

Fontanive et al. 2019

The very high binary fraction of stars hosting massive planets and brown dwarfs on close orbits (Fontanive et al. 2019a)

Fontanive & Bardalez Gagliuffi 2021

Compilation of exoplanets in stellar binaries (Fontanive & Bardalez Gagliuffi 2021)

Project 5

Occurrences of directly-imaged exoplanets 

The direct imaging method is the only way to detect a planet based on its own emitted light, rather than through the effect of the planet on its host star, but is only sensitive to very massive planets orbiting from very large distances. Constraining the demographics and architectures of giant exoplanets and brown dwarfs on wide orbits allows to test fingerprints of formation mechanisms, and provides rich sources of empirical constraints for planet formation and migration simulations.

Vigan, Fontanive et al. 2020 (SHINE)

Planets and brown dwarfs detected in the SHINE direct imaging survey (Vigan, Fontanive et al. 2020)

SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) is a large dedicated direct imaging survey using the high-contrast imager SPHERE at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), to perform a census of young giant exoplanets in the Solar neighbourhood.

I led the statistical analysis of the first 150 stars observed in the SHINE survey (Vigan, Fontanive et al. 2021).

Comparing observations to theoretical models, we found that more massive stars produce more giant planets, and low-mass stars have more brown dwarf companions.

Project 6

Target Selection for Imaging Programs with COPAINS

The COPAINS target selection tool for direct imaging surveys based on proper motions

(Fontanive et al. 2019b)

Fontanive et al. COPAINS
Fontanive et al. COPAINS

Comparing the predictions of the code to the measured or expected sensitivity from various imaging instruments, this in turn enables us to robustly select the most promising targets for direct imaging campaigns searching for low-mass companions. Such an informed selection method will significantly increase the current census of wide brown dwarfs and planetary companions to stars, which remain very rare in current surveys.

The wobble of a star in its orbit induced by the gravitational pull of a companion is one of the most efficient ways to detect that companion. When the movement is in the plane of the sky, it can be visible as a change in the star’s apparent position. A nonlinear apparent motion may thus serve as evidence for the existence of an unseen companion.

COPAINS is new tool developed to identify previously undiscovered companions based on changes in stellar motions. This innovative procedure allows for dynamical predictions of the possible masses and separations of hidden companions compatible with observed astrometric trends.