Finding Exoplanets

Finding Exoplanets[1]

An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. The image below is a rendering of Proxima b, an exoplanet that orbits our stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, every 11 days!

An international team of astronomers has released the largest ever compilation of exoplanet-detecting observations made using a technique called the radial velocity method. By making the data public, the team is offering unprecedented access to one of the best exoplanet searches in the world.

The data were gathered as part of a two-decade planet-hunting program using a spectrometer called HIRES, built by UC Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Vogt and mounted on the 10-meter Keck-I telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

“HIRES was not specifically optimized to do this type of exoplanet detective work, but has turned out to be a workhorse instrument of the field,” said Vogt, a professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics. “I am very happy to contribute to science that is fundamentally changing how we view ourselves in the universe.”

The radial velocity method is one of the most successful techniques for finding and confirming planets. It takes advantage of the fact that, in addition to a planet being influenced by the gravity of the star it orbits, the planet’s gravity also affects the star. Astronomers are able to use sophisticated tools to detect the tiny wobble the planet induces as its gravity tugs on the star.

As the HIRES survey moves into its third decade, the team members decided it was time to clean house. With so much data at hand and a limited amount of time, they recognized that more exoplanets would be found by sharing their catalog with the exoplanet community.

In other Astronews multiple planets have been discovered in the past year. They now refer to the “exoplanet zoo.”

Focus is turning to finding exoplanets that lie in habitable zones, for there  and only there is there possibility of finding life.

[1] From Space Daily, your portal to space (http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Astronomy_team_releases_planet_search_data_finds_more_than_100_candidates_999.html) posted by Tim Stephens for UCSC News, Febuary 14, 2017.

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