May 20, 2019

18.04.10- Zeroing in on Nearby Exoplanets.

It’s hard to believe that a little less than two decades ago, no extra-solar planets were known. Now, the count climbs daily, and platforms like the Kepler Space Telescope threaten to launch the tally into the thousands. Recently, an international team of astronomers made six new discoveries in two nearby star systems that may eventually lead towards the cosmic Holy Grail; an exoplanet resembling Earth. The team was led by prolific planet hunter Paul Butler and Steve Vogt, who discovered the super-Earths by combining radial velocity data gathered from the Anglo-Australian telescope and the Keck observatory. First up is 61 Virginis, a Sun-like star 28 light years away. This system has always been of interest to astronomers because it is a near twin to our own Sun and is on the short list for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder. The team discovered three worlds ranging in mass from 5 Earths to 25. In addition, follow-up studies with the Spitzer Space telescope find evidence for a dust ring around 61 Virginis about twice Pluto’s distance from our own Sun. The second discovery is one 7.5 Earth mass planet and a possible two more found around the star HD 1461 in the constellation Cetus about 76 light years distant. Again, HD 1461 could pass for our Sun in terms of age, size, and mass. Both stars would be visible to the naked eye under reasonably dark skies. It remains to be seen if these worlds are rocky terrestrial planets or Uranus-like slush balls. Evidence is mounting, however, that planets may be common around nearby Sun-like stars. The innermost planetary detection for 61 Virginis also represents the smallest amplitude discovery ever made by astronomers. These discoveries were backed up by brightness measurements made by robotic telescopes based in Arizona and operated by Tennessee University’s George Henry. This ruled out the possibility that the amplitude variations seen were due to variability or “starspots”. The Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey Team will also soon have a new weapon in its arsenal; the recently completed Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope atop Mount Hamilton. All that’s needed now is for the Discovery Channel to fund a new hit series; The Exoplanet Hunters!