A European team of astronomers  has discovered the lightest known planet orbiting a star other than the sun (an “exoplanet”).
The new exoplanet orbits the bright star mu Arae located in the southern Altar constellation. It is the second planet discovered around this star and completes a full revolution in 9.5 days.
With a mass of only 14 times the mass of the Earth, the new planet lies at the threshold of the largest possible rocky planets, making it a possible super Earth-like object. Uranus, the smallest of the giant planets of the Solar System has a similar mass. However Uranus and the new exoplanet differ so much by their distance from the host star that their formation and structure are likely to be very different.
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This discovery was made possible by the unprecedented accuracy of the HARPS spectrograph on ESO’s 3.6-m telescope at La Silla, which allows radial velocities to be measured with a precision better than 1 m/s. It is another clear demonstration of the European leadership in the field of exoplanet research.
A unique planet hunting machine
Since the first detection in 1995 of a planet around the star 51 Peg by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz from the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland), astronomers have learned that our Solar System is not unique, as more than 120 giant planets orbiting other stars were discovered mostly by radial-velocity surveys (cf. ESO PR 13/00, ESO PR 07/01, and ESO PR 03/03).
This fundamental observational method is based on the detection of variations in the velocity of the central star, due to the changing direction of the gravitational pull from an (unseen) exoplanet as it orbits the star. The evaluation of the measured velocity variations allows to deduce the planet’s orbit, in particular the period and the distance from the star, as well as a minimum mass .
The continued quest for exoplanets requires better and better instrumentation. In this context, ESO undoubtedly took the leadership with the new HARPS spectrograph (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) of the 3.6-m telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory (see ESO PR 06/03). Offered in October 2003 to the research community in the ESO member countries, this unique instrument is optimized to detect planets in orbit around other stars (“exoplanets”) by means of accurate (radial) velocity measurements with an unequalled precision of 1 metre per second.
HARPS was built by a European Consortium  in collaboration with ESO. Already from the beginning of its operation, it has demonstrated its very high efficiency. By comparison with CORALIE, another well known planet-hunting optimized spectrograph installed on the Swiss-Euler 1.2-m telescope at La Silla (cf ESO PR 18/98, 12/99, 13/00), the typical observation times have been reduced by a factor one hundred and the accuracy of the measurements has been increased by a factor ten.
These improvements have opened new perspectives in the search for extra-solar planets and have set new standards in terms of instrumental precision.
The planetary system around mu Arae
The star mu Arae is about 50 light years away. This solar-like star is located in the southern constellation Ara (the Altar) and is bright enough (5th magnitude) to be observed with the unaided eye.
Mu Arae was already known to harbour a Jupiter-sized planet with a 650 days orbital period. Previous observations also hinted at the presence of another companion (a planet or a star) much further away.
The new measurements obtained by the astronomers on this object, combined with data from other teams confirm this picture. But as Fran?ois Bouchy, member of the team, states: “Not only did the new HARPS measurements confirm what we previously believed to know about this star but they also showed that an additional planet on short orbit was present. And this new planet appears to be the smallest yet discovered around a star other than the sun. This makes mu Arae a very exciting planetary system.”
During 8 nights in June 2004, mu Arae was repeatedly observed and its radial velocity measured by HARPS to obtain information on the interior of the star. This so-called astero-seismology technique (see ESO PR 15/01) studies the small acoustic waves which make the surface of the star periodically pulsate in and out. By knowing the internal structure of the star, the astronomers aimed at understanding the origin of the unusual amount of heavy elements observed in its stellar atmosphere. This unusual chemical composition could provide unique information to the planet formation history.
Says Nuno Santos, another member of the team: “To our surprise, the analysis of the new measurements revealed a radial velocity variation with a period of 9.5 days on top of the acoustic oscillation signal!”
This discovery has been made possible thanks to the large number of measurements obtained during the astero-seimology campaign.
From this date, the star, that was also part of the HARPS consortium survey programme, was regularly monitored with a careful observation strategy to reduce the “seismic noise” of the star.
These new data confirmed both the amplitude and the periodicity of the radial velocity variations found during the 8 nights in June. The astronomers were left with only one convincing explanation to this periodic signal: a second planet orbits mu Arae and accomplishes a full revolution in 9.5 days.
But this was not the only surprise: from the radial velocity amplitude, that is the size of the wobble induced by the gravitational pull of the planet on the star, the astronomers derived a mass for the planet of only 14 times the mass of the Earth! This is about the mass of Uranus, the smallest of the giant planets in the solar system.
The newly found exoplanet therefore sets a new record in the smallest planet discovered around a solar type star.
At the boundary
The mass of this planet places it at the boundary between the very large earth-like (rocky) planets and giant planets.
As current planetary formation models are still far from being able to account for all the amazing diversity observed amongst the extrasolar planets discovered, astronomers can only speculate on the true nature of the present object. In the current paradigm of giant planet formation, a core is formed first through the accretion of solid “planetesimals”. Once this core reaches a critical mass, gas accumulates in a “runaway” fashion and the mass of the planet increases rapidly. In the present case, this later phase is unlikely to have happened for otherwise the planet would have become much more massive. Furthermore, recent models having shown that migration shortens the formation time, it is unlikely that the present object has migrated over large distances and remained of such small mass.
This object is therefore likely to be a planet with a rocky (not an icy) core surrounded by a small (of the order of a tenth of the total mass) gaseous envelope and would therefore qualify as a “super-Earth”.
The HARPS consortium, led by Michel Mayor (Geneva Observatory, Switzerland), has been granted 100 observing nights per year during a 5-year period at the ESO 3.6-m telescope to perform one of the most ambitious systematic searches for exoplanets so far implemented worldwide. To this aim, the consortium repeatedly measures velocities of hundreds of stars that may harbour planetary systems.
The detection of this new light planet after less than 1 year of operation demonstrates the outstanding potential of HARPS for detecting rocky planets on short orbits. Further analysis shows that performances achieved with HARPS make possible the detection of big “telluric” planets with only a few times the mass of the Earth. Such a capability is a major improvement compared to past planet surveys. Detection of such rocky objects strengthens the interest of future transit detections from space with missions like COROT, Eddington and KEPLER that shall be able to measure their radius.
The research described in this Press release has been submitted for publication to the leading astrophysical journal “Astronomy and Astrophysics”. A preprint is available as a postscript file at http://www.oal.ul.pt/~nuno/.
: The team is composed of Nuno Santos (Centro de Astronomia e Astrofisica da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal), Fran?ois Bouchy and Jean-Pierre Sivan (Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Marseille, France), Michel Mayor, Francesco Pepe, Didier Queloz, St?phane Udry, and Christophe Lovis (Observatoire de l’Universit? de Gen?ve, Switzerland), Sylvie Vauclair, Michael Bazot (Toulouse, France), Gaspare Lo Curto and Dominique Naef (ESO), Xavier Delfosse (LAOG, Grenoble, France), Willy Benz and Christoph Mordasini (Physikalisches Institut der Universit?t Bern, Switzerland), and Jean-Louis Bertaux (Service d’A?ronomie de Verri?re-le-Buisson, Paris, France).
 A fundamental limitation of the radial-velocity method is the unknown of the inclination of the planetary orbit that only allows the determination of a lower mass limit for the planet. However, statistical considerations indicate that in most cases, the true mass will not be much higher than this value. The mass units for the exoplanets used in this text are 1 Jupiter mass = 22 Uranus masses = 318 Earth masses; 1 Uranus mass = 14.5 Earth masses.
 HARPS has been designed and built by an international consortium of research institutes, led by the Observatoire de Gen?ve (Switzerland) and including Observatoire de Haute-Provence (France), Physikalisches Institut der Universit?t Bern (Switzerland), the Service d’Aeronomie (CNRS, France), as well as ESO La Silla and ESO Garching.
Original Source: ESO News Release