Huge, Lightweight Planet Discovered

by Fraser Cain on September 15, 2006

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A new, lightweight planet has been discovered orbiting a star 450 light-years away in the constellation Lacerta. This unusual planet is larger than Jupiter, but it has only half its mass; astronomers estimate it has the same density as cork. The planet, named HAT-P-1, orbits its host star every 4.5 days. A network of automated telescopes detected how the planet dims its parent star by 1.5% when it passes in between the star and the Earth. Why this planet is so swollen is still a mystery to astronomers.

Using a network of small automated telescopes known as HAT, Smithsonian astronomers have discovered a planet unlike any other known world. This new planet, designated HAT-P-1, orbits one member of a pair of distant stars 450 light-years away in the constellation Lacerta.

“We could be looking at an entirely new class of planets,” said Gaspar Bakos, a Hubble fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Bakos designed and built the HAT network and is lead author of a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal describing the discovery. That paper is available online at http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0609369.

With a radius about 1.38 times Jupiter’s, HAT-P-1 is the largest known planet. In spite of its huge size, its mass is only half that of Jupiter.

“This planet is about one-quarter the density of water,” Bakos said. “In other words, it’s lighter than a giant ball of cork! Just like Saturn, it would float in a bathtub if you could find a tub big enough to hold it, but it would float almost three times higher.”

HAT-P-1 revolves around its host star every 4.5 days in an orbit one-twentieth of the distance from Earth to the Sun. Once each orbit, it passes in front of its parent star, causing the star to appear fainter by about 1.5 percent for more than two hours, after which the star returns to its previous brightness.

HAT-P-1′s parent star is one member of a double-star system called ADS 16402 and is visible in binoculars. The two stars are separated by about 1500 times the Earth-Sun distance. The stars are similar to the Sun but slightly younger – about 3.6 billion years old compared to the Sun’s age of 4.5 billion years.

Although stranger than any other extrasolar planet found so far, HAT-P-1 is not alone in its low-density status. The first planet ever found to transit its star, HD 209458b, also is puffed up about 20 percent larger than predicted by theory. HAT-P-1 is 24 percent larger than expected.

“Out of eleven known transiting planets, now not one but two are substantially bigger and lower in density than theory predicts,” said co-author Robert Noyes (CfA). “We can’t dismiss HD209458b as a fluke. This new discovery suggests something could be missing in our theories of how planets form.”

Theorists had already considered a number of possibilities to explain the large size of HD 209458b, but so far without success. The only way to puff up these giant planets beyond the size calculated from planetary structure equations would be to supply additional heat to their interiors. Simple heating of the surface due to the host star’s proximity would not work. (If it could, all close-in transiting giant planets should be expanded, not just two of them.)

One way to inject energy into the planet’s center is by tipping it on its side, similar to Uranus in the solar system. A planet in that state orbiting close to its star would be subjected to tidal heating of the interior. But according to Smithsonian astronomer Matthew Holman (who was not a member of the discovery team), “the circumstances required to tip over a planet are so unusual that this would seem unlikely to explain both known examples of inflated worlds.”

According to co-author Dimitar Sasselov (CfA), “Another explanation for HD 209458b’s large size was tidal heating due to an eccentric orbit, but recent observations have pretty much ruled that out.”

The scientists will continue observing HAT-P-1 to see if such an explanation could hold in this case, but “until we can find an explanation for both of these swollen planets, they remain a great mystery,” Sasselov said.

The HAT network consists of six telescopes, four at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Whipple Observatory in Arizona and two at its Submillimeter Array facility in Hawaii. These telescopes conduct robotic observations every clear night, each covering an area of the sky 300 times the size of the full moon with every exposure.

HAT searches for planets by watching for stars that dim slightly when an orbiting planet crosses directly in front of the star as viewed from Earth – a sort of mini-eclipse. Transits offer astronomers a unique opportunity to measure a planet’s physical size from the amount of the dimming. Combined with the mass, which is determined by measuring the amount of the star’s wobble as the planet orbits it, researchers then calculated a planet’s density. Measurements of the wobble of HAT-P-1′s parent star were led by co-author Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University.

Major funding for HATnet was provided by NASA. More information about HAT is available online at http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~gbakos/HAT/.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

Original Source: CfA News Release

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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