Gravitational Lens Reveals Distant Planet

Image credit: NASA/JPL
Like Sherlock Holmes holding a magnifying glass to unveil hidden clues, modern day astronomers used cosmic magnifying effects to reveal a planet orbiting a distant star.

This marks the first discovery of a planet around a star beyond Earth’s solar system using gravitational microlensing. A star or planet can act as a cosmic lens to magnify and brighten a more distant star lined up behind it. The gravitational field of the foreground star bends and focuses light, like a glass lens bending and focusing starlight in a telescope. Albert Einstein predicted this effect in his theory of general relativity and confirmed it with our Sun.

“The real strength of microlensing is its ability to detect low-mass planets,” said Dr. Ian Bond of the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh, Scotland, lead author of a paper appearing in the May 10 Astrophysical Journal Letters. The discovery was made possible through cooperation between two international research teams: Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (Moa) and Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (Ogle). Well-equipped amateur astronomers might use this technique to follow up future discoveries and help confirm planets around other stars.

The newly discovered star-planet system is 17,000 light years away, in the constellation Sagittarius. The planet, orbiting a red dwarf parent star, is most likely one-and-a-half times bigger than Jupiter. The planet and star are three times farther apart than Earth and the Sun. Together, they magnify a farther, background star some 24,000 light years away, near the Milky Way center.

In most prior microlensing observations, scientists saw a typical brightening pattern, or light curve, indicating a star’s gravitational pull was affecting light from an object behind it. The latest observations revealed extra spikes of brightness, indicating the existence of two massive objects. By analyzing the precise shape of the light curve, Bond and his team determined one smaller object is only 0.4 percent the mass of a second, larger object. They concluded the smaller object must be a planet orbiting its parent star.

Dr. Bohdan Paczynski of Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., an OGLE team member, first proposed using gravitational microlensing to detect dark matter in 1986. In 1991, Paczynski and his student, Shude Mao, proposed using microlensing to detect extrasolar planets. Two years later, three groups reported the first detection of gravitational microlensing by stars. Earlier claims of planet discoveries with microlensing are not regarded as definitive, since they had too few observations of the apparent planetary brightness variations.

“I’m thrilled to see the prediction come true with this first definite planet detection through gravitational microlensing,” Paczynski said. He and his colleagues believe observations over the next few years may lead to the discovery of Neptune-sized, and even Earth-sized planets around distant stars.

Microlensing can easily detect extrasolar planets, because a planet dramatically affects the brightness of a background star. Because the effect works only in rare instances, when two stars are perfectly aligned, millions of stars must be monitored. Recent advances in cameras and image analysis have made this task manageable. Such developments include the new large field-of-view Ogle-III camera, the Moa-II 1.8 meter (70.8 inch) telescope, being built, and cooperation between microlensing teams.

“It’s time-critical to catch stars while they are aligned, so we must share our data as quickly as possible,” said Ogle team-leader Dr. Andrzej Udalski of Poland’s Warsaw University Observatory. Udalski in Poland and Paczynski in the U.S lead the Polish/American project. It operates at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, run by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and includes the world’s largest microlensing survey on the 1.3 meter (51-inch) Warsaw Telescope.

NASA and the National Science Foundation fund the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment in the U.S. The Polish State Committee for Scientific Research and Foundation for Polish Science funds it in Poland. Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics is primarily a New Zealand/Japanese group, with collaborators in the United Kingdom and U.S. New Zealand’s Marsden Fund, NASA and National Science Foundation, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science support it.

Images and information about the latest research are available on the Internet at More information on NASA’s planet-hunting efforts is at

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

How Many Habitable Earths Are Out There?

Image credit: NASA
More than 100 planetary systems have already been discovered around distant stars. Unfortunately, the limitations of current technology mean that only giant planets (like Jupiter) have so far been detected, and smaller, rocky planets similar to Earth remain out of sight.

How many of the known exoplanetary systems might contain habitable Earth-type planets? Perhaps half of them, according to a team from the Open University, led by Professor Barrie Jones, who will be describing their results today at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Milton Keynes.

By using computer modelling of the known exoplanetary systems, the group has been able to calculate the likelihood of any ‘Earths’ existing in the so-called habitable zone – the range of distances from each central star where life as we know it could survive. Popularly known as the “Goldilocks” zone, this region would be neither too hot for liquid water, nor too cold.

By launching ‘Earths’ (with masses between 0.1 and 10 times that of our Earth) into a variety of orbits in the habitable zone and following their progress with the computer model, the small planets have been found to suffer a variety of fates. In some systems the proximity of one or more Jupiter-like planets results in gravitational ejection of the ‘Earth’ from anywhere in the habitable zone. However, in other cases there are safe havens in parts of the habitable zone, and in the remainder the entire zone is a safe haven.

Nine of the known exoplanetary systems have been investigated in detail using this technique, enabling the team to derive the basic rules that determine the habitability of the remaining ninety or so systems.

The analysis shows that about half of the known exoplanetary systems could have an ‘Earth’ which is currently orbiting in at least part of the habitable zone, and which has been in this zone for at least one billion years. This period of time has been selected since it is thought to be the minimum required for life to arise and establish itself.

Furthermore, the models show that life could develop at some time in about two thirds of the systems, since the habitable zone moves outwards as the central star ages and becomes more active.

Habitable Moons
A different aspect of this problem is being studied by PhD student David Underwood, who is investigating the possibility that Earth-sized moons orbiting giant planets could support life. A poster setting out the possibilities will be presented during the RAS National Astronomy Meeting.

All of the planets discovered so far are of similar mass to Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. Just as Jupiter has four planet-sized moons, so giant planets around other stars may also have extensive satellite systems, possibly with moons similar in size and mass to Earth.

Life as we know it cannot evolve on a gaseous, giant planet. However, it could survive on Earth-sized satellites orbiting such a planet if the giant is located in the habitable zone.

In order to determine which of the gas giants located within habitable zones could possess a life-friendly moon, the computer models search for systems where the orbits of Earth-sized satellites would be stable and confined within the habitable zone for at least the one billion years needed for life to emerge.

The OU team’s method of determining whether any putative ‘Earths’ or Earth-sized satellites in habitable zones can offer suitable conditions for life to evolve can be applied rapidly to any planetary systems that are newly announced. Future searches for ‘Earths’ and extraterrestrial life should also be assisted by identifying in advance the systems most likely to house habitable worlds.

The predictions made by the simulations will have a practical value in years to come when next-generation instruments will be able to search for the atmospheric signatures of life, such as large amounts of oxygen, on ‘Earths’ and Earth-sized satellites.

There are currently 105 known planetary systems other than our own, with 120 Jupiter-like planets orbiting them. Two of these systems contain three known planets, 11 contain two and the remaining 92 each have one. All but one of these planets has been discovered by their effect on their parent stars’ motion in the sky, causing them to wobble regularly. The extent of these wobbles can be determined from information within the light received from the stars. The remaining planet was discovered as the result of a slight dimming of starlight caused by its regular passage across the disk of its parent star.

Future discoveries are likely to contain a higher proportion of systems that resemble our Solar System, where the giant planets orbit at a safe distance beyond the habitable zone. The proportion of systems that could have habitable ‘Earths’ is, therefore, likely to rise. By the middle of the next decade, space telescopes should be capable of seeing any ‘Earths’ and investigating them to see if they are habitable, and, indeed, whether they actually support life.

Original Source: RAS News Release

Look for Dust to Find New Earths

Image credit: NASA
If alien astronomers around a distant star had studied the young Sun four-and-a-half billion years ago, could they have seen signs of a newly-formed Earth orbiting this innocuous yellow star? The answer is yes, according to Scott Kenyon (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory) and Benjamin Bromley (University of Utah). Moreover, their computer model says that we can use the same signs to locate places where Earth-size planets currently are forming-young worlds that, one day, may host life of their own.

The key to locating newborn Earths, say Kenyon and Bromley, is to look not for the planet itself, but for a ring of dust orbiting the star that is a fingerprint of terrestrial (rocky) planet formation.

“Chances are, if there’s a ring of dust, there’s a planet,” says Kenyon.

Good Planets Are Hard To Find

Our solar system formed from a swirling disk of gas and dust, called a protoplanetary disk, orbiting the young Sun. The same materials are found throughout our galaxy, so the laws of physics predict that other star systems will form planets in a similar manner.

Although planets may be common, they are difficult to detect because they are too faint and located too close to a much brighter star. Therefore, astronomers seek planets by looking for indirect evidence of their existence. In young planetary systems, that evidence may be present in the disk itself, and in how the planet affects the dusty disk from which it forms.

Large, Jupiter-sized planets possess strong gravity. That gravity strongly affects the dusty disk. A single Jupiter can clear a ring-shaped gap in the disk, warp the disk, or create concentrated swaths of dust that leave a pattern in the disk like a wake from a boat. The presence of a giant planet may explain the wake-like pattern seen in the disk around the 350 million-year-old star Vega.

Small, Earth-sized worlds, on the other hand, possess weaker gravity. They affect the disk more weakly, leaving more subtle signs of their presence. Rather than looking for warps or wakes, Kenyon and Bromley recommend looking to see how bright the star system is at infrared (IR) wavelengths of light. (Infrared light, which we perceive as heat, is light with longer wavelengths and less energy than visible light.)

Stars with dusty disks are brighter in the IR than stars without disks. The more dust a star system holds, the brighter it is in the IR. Kenyon and Bromley have shown that astronomers can use IR brightnesses not only to detect a disk, but also to tell when an Earth-sized planet is forming within that disk.

“We were the first to calculate the expected levels of dust production and associated infrared excesses, and the first to demonstrate that terrestrial planet formation produces observable amounts of dust,” says Bromley.

Building Planets From The Ground Up
The most prevalent theory of planet formation calls for building planets “from the ground up.” According to the coagulation theory, small bits of rocky material in a protoplanetary disk collide and stick together. Over thousands of years, small clumps grow into larger and larger clumps, like building a snowman one handful of snow at a time. Eventually, the rocky clumps grow so large that they become full-fledged planets.

Kenyon and Bromley model the planet formation process using a complex computer program. They “seed” a protoplanetary disk with a billion planetesimals 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in size, all orbiting a central star, and step the system forward in time to see how planets evolve from those basic ingredients.

“We made the simulation as realistic as we could and still complete the calculations in a reasonable amount of time,” says Bromley.

They found the planet formation process to be remarkably efficient. Initially, collisions between planetesimals occur at low velocities, so colliding objects tend to merge and grow. At a typical Earth-Sun distance, it takes only about 1000 years for 1-kilometer objects to grow into 100-kilometer (60-mile) objects. Another 10,000 years produces 600-mile-diameter protoplanets, which grow over an additional 10,000 years to become 1200-mile-diameter protoplanets. Hence, Moon-sized objects can form in as little as 20,000 years.

As planetesimals within the disk grow larger and more massive, their gravity grows stronger. Once a few of the objects reach a size of 600 miles, they begin “stirring up” the remaining smaller objects. Gravity slingshots the smaller, asteroid-sized chunks of rock to higher and higher speeds. They travel so fast that when they collide, they don’t merge-they pulverize, smashing each other apart violently. While the largest protoplanets continue to grow, the rest of the rocky planetesimals grind each other into dust.

“The dust forms right where the planet is forming, at the same distance from its star,” says Kenyon. As a result, the temperature of the dust indicates where the planet is forming. Dust in a Venus-like orbit will be hotter than dust in an Earth-like orbit, giving a clue to the infant planet’s distance from its star.

The size of the largest objects in the disk determines the dust production rate. The amount of dust peaks when 600-mile protoplanets have formed.

“The Spitzer Space Telescope should be able to detect such dust peaks,” says Bromley.

Currently, Kenyon and Bromley’s terrestrial planet formation model covers only a fraction of the solar system, from the orbit of Venus to a distance about halfway between Earth and Mars. In the future, they plan to extend the model to encompass orbits as close to the Sun as Mercury and as distant as Mars.

They also have modeled the formation of the Kuiper Belt-a region of small, icy and rocky objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. The next logical step is to model the formation of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

“We’re starting at the edges of the solar system and working inward,” Kenyon says with a grin. “We’re also working out way up in mass. The Earth is 1000 times more massive than a Kuiper Belt object, and Jupiter is 1000 times more massive than the Earth.”

“Our ultimate goal is to model and understand the formation of our entire solar system.” Kenyon estimates that their goal is attainable within a decade, as computer speed continues to increase, enabling the simulation of an entire solar system.

This research was published in the February 20, 2004, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Additional information and animations are available online at

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics 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

Planet is Causing Solar Storms

Image credit: UBC

Astronomers from the University of British Columbia have discovered that a Jupiter-sized planet is interacting with its star, causing magnetic storms. The sun-like star, HD170049, is located approximately 90 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius, and was found to have a planet back in 2000 by another group of astronomers. These new observations using the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea have tracked a bright spot that goes around the star keeping pace with its planet – it’s been doing this for more than 100 orbits of the planet.

Canadian astronomers announced today the first evidence of a magnetic field on a planet outside of our solar system which is also the first observation of a planet heating its star. The report was presented this morning by Ph.D. candidate Evgenya Shkolnik, Dr. Gordon Walker, both of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC and Dr. David Bohlender of the National Research Council of Canada / Herzberg Institute for Astrophysics, Victoria, BC at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Atlanta, Georgia. The result may offer clues about the structure and formation of the giant planet.

The trio observed the sun-like star HD179949 with the 3.6-meter (142-in) Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii (a 14,000-ft. dormant volcano) using its high-resolution spectrograph called Gecko. HD179949 is 90 light years away in the direction of the southern constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer) but it is too faint to be seen without a telescope. It was first reported to have a close-in planet by Tinney, Butler, Marcy and others in the first results of the Anglo-Australian planet search in 2000. The planet is at least 270 times more massive than the Earth, almost as big as Jupiter, and orbits the star every 3.093 days at 350,000 mph. Such tightly orbiting ?roasters? or ?hot jupiters? make up 20% of all known extrasolar planets.

The star?s chromosphere, a thin, hot layer just above the visible photosphere, was observed in the ultraviolet light emitted by singly-ionized Calcium atoms. Giant magnetic storms produce hot spots which are visible as bright patches in this light. Such a persistent hotspot is observed on HD 179949 keeping pace with the planet in its 3-day orbit for more than a year (or 100 orbits)! The hotspot appears to be moving across the surface of the star slightly ahead of, but keeping pace with the planet. Most evidence suggests the star is rotating too slowly to carry the spot around so quickly.

The best explanation for this traveling hot spot is an interaction between the planet?s magnetic field and the star?s chromosphere, something predicted by Steve Saar of the Center for Astrophysics and Manfred Cuntz of the University of Texas at Arlington in 2000. If so, this is the first ever glimpse of a magnetic field on a planet outside of our solar system, and may provide clues about the planet?s structure and formation.

?If we are indeed witnessing the entanglement of the magnetic field of a star with that of its planet it gives us an entirely new insight into the nature of closely bound planets.? — Dr. Gordon Walker

Obviously, more observations are needed to test if the magnetic interaction is a transient event or something longer lasting. Also, observations from the 8-meter Gemini-South Telescope in Chile of this stellar system are underway in the infrared light emitted by Helium which would map hotspots at higher levels of the chromosphere.

This work was supported by the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council and the National Research Council of Canada.

Original Source: UBC News Release

Young Gas Giants Have to Fight to Survive

Image credit: ESA

Planet hunters have found more than 30 stars with gas giants in a tight orbit. This orbit seems to be caused by a race between a young gas giant and the star’s planetary disk during early formation of the star system. It’s too hot for them to form in their tight orbit; instead it’s believed they’re formed further out and then slowly pushed into the star by material in the new star system. In some cases the planet is gobbled up by the star, while sometimes the planet consumes the early planetary disk of material and survives.

Of the first 100 stars found to harbor planets, more than 30 stars host a Jupiter-sized world in an orbit smaller than Mercury’s, whizzing around its star in a matter of days (as opposed to our solar system where Jupiter takes 12 years to orbit the Sun). Such close orbits result from a race between a nascent gas giant and a newborn star. In the October 10, 2003, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomers Myron Lecar and Dimitar Sasselov showed what influences this race. They found that planet formation is a contest, where a growing planet must fight for survival lest it be swallowed by the star that initially nurtured it.

“The endgame is a race between the star and its giant planet,” says Sasselov. “In some systems, the planet wins and survives, but in other systems, the planet loses the race and is eaten by the star.”

Although Jupiter-sized worlds have been found orbiting incredibly close to their parent stars, such giant planets could not have formed in their current locations. The oven-like heat of the nearby star and dearth of raw materials would have prevented any large planet from coalescing. “It’s a lousy neighborhood to form gas giants,” says Lecar. “But we find a lot of Jupiter-sized planets in such neighborhoods. Explaining how they got there is a challenge.”

Theorists calculate that so-called “hot Jupiters” must form farther out in the disk of gas and dust surrounding the new star and then migrate inward. A challenge is to halt the planet’s migration before it spirals into the star.

A Jupiter-like world’s migration is powered by the disk material outside the planet’s orbit. The outer protoplanetary disk inexorably pushes the planet inward, even as the planet grows by accreting that outer material. Lecar and Sasselov showed that a planet can win its race to avoid destruction by eating the outer disk before the star eats it.

Our solar system differs from the “hot Jupiter” systems in that the race must have ended quite early. Jupiter migrated for only a short distance before consuming the material between it and the infant Saturn, bringing the King of Planets to a halt. If the protoplanetary disk that birthed our solar system had contained more matter, Jupiter might have lost the race. Then it and the inner planets, including Earth, would have spiraled into the Sun.

“If Jupiter goes, they all go,” says Lecar.

“It’s too early to say that our solar system is rare, because it’s easier to find ‘hot Jupiter’ systems with current detection techniques,” says Sasselov. “But we certainly can say we’re fortunate that Jupiter’s migration stopped early. Otherwise, the Earth would have been destroyed, leaving a barren solar system devoid of life.”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics 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: Harvard CfA News Release

Earthlike Worlds Could Be Fairly Common

Image credit: NASA

According to a new simulation by a team of University of Washington astronomers, Earthlike worlds could be more common that previously believed. The team performed 44 computer simulations of planet formations near a star, and found that an Earth-sized world was created nearly every time – and a terrestrial planet was in the star’s habitable zone 25% of the time. The simulations also showed that the orbits of gas giants in a system might decide how much water remains on a terrestrial planet.

Astrobiologists disagree about whether advanced life is common or rare in our universe. But new research suggests that one thing is pretty certain ? if an Earthlike world with significant water is needed for advanced life to evolve, there could be many candidates.

In 44 computer simulations of planet formation near a sun, astronomers found that each simulation produced one to four Earthlike planets, including 11 so-called “habitable” planets about the same distance from their stars as Earth is from our sun.

“Our simulations show a tremendous variety of planets. You can have planets that are half the size of Earth and are very dry, like Mars, or you can have planets like Earth, or you can have planets three times bigger than Earth, with perhaps 10 times more water,” said Sean Raymond, a University of Washington doctoral student in astronomy.

Raymond is the lead author of a paper detailing the simulation results that has been accepted for publication in Icarus, the journal of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. Co-authors are Thomas R. Quinn, a UW associate astronomy professor, and Jonathan Lunine, a professor of planetary science and physics at the University of Arizona.

The simulations show that the amount of water on terrestrial, or Earthlike, planets could be greatly influenced by outer gas giant planets like Jupiter.

“The more eccentric giant planet orbits result in drier terrestrial planets,” Raymond said. “Conversely, more circular giant planet orbits mean wetter terrestrial planets.”

In the case of our solar system, Jupiter’s orbit is slightly elliptical, which could explain why Earth is 80 percent covered by oceans rather than being bone dry or completely covered in water miles deep.

The findings are significant because of the discovery in recent years of a large number of giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn orbiting other suns. The presence, and orbits, of those planets can be inferred from their gravitational interaction with their parent stars and their effect on light from those stars as seen from Earth.

It currently is impossible to detect Earthlike planets around other stars. However, if results from the models are correct, there could be planets such as ours around a number of other suns relatively close to our solar system. A significant number of those planets are likely to be in the “habitable zone,” the distance from a star at which the planet’s temperature will maintain liquid water on the surface. Liquid water is thought to be a requirement for life, so planets in a star’s habitable zone are ideal candidates for life. It is unclear, however, whether those planets could harbor more than simple microbial life.

The researchers note that their models represent the extremes of what is possible in forming Earthlike planets rather than what is typical of planets observed in our galaxy. For now, they said, it is unclear which approach is more realistic.

Their goal is to understand what a system’s terrestrial planets will look like if the characteristics of a system’s giant planets are known, Raymond said.

Quinn noted that all of the giant planets detected so far have orbits that carry them very close to their parent stars, so their orbits are completed in a relatively short time and it is easier to observe them. The giant planets observed close to their parent stars likely formed farther away and then, because of gravitational forces, migrated closer.

But Quinn expects that giant planets will begin to be discovered farther away from their suns as astronomers have more time to watch and are able to observe gravitational effects during their longer orbits. He doubts such planets will be found before they have completed whatever migration they make toward their suns, because their orbits would be too irregular to observe with any confidence.

“These simulations occur after their migration is over, after the orbits of the gas giants have stabilized,” he said.

The research is supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astrobiology Institute, its Planetary Atmospheres program, and Intel Corp.

Original Source: UW News Release

Evidence for Planets Around Vega

Image credit: PPARC

Astronomers from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council believe they’ve discovered a planetary system around Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky. Not only that, the star system seems remarkably similar to our own Solar System. So far, they’ve found evidence for a Neptune-sized planet in the same orbit as our own Neptune. This means there could be smaller, rocky planets closer in to the star.

Astronomers at the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Councils UK Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh have produced compelling new evidence that Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky, has a planetary system around it which is more like our own Solar System than any other so far discovered.

All of the hundred or so planets that have been discovered around other stars have been very large gaseous (Jupiter-like) planets orbiting close to their star. This is very unlike our own Solar System. New computer modelling techniques have shown that observations of the structure of a faint dust disk around Vega can be best explained by a Neptune-like planet orbiting at a similar distance to Neptune in our own solar system and having similar mass. The wide orbit of the Neptune-like planet means that there is plenty of room inside it for small rocky planets similar to the Earth the Holy Grail for astronomers wanting to know whether we are alone in the Universe.

The modelling, which is described today (1 December 2003) in The Astrophysical Journal, is based on observations taken with the world’s most sensitive submillimetre camera, SCUBA. The camera, built at the ATC, is operated on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The SCUBA image shows a disk of very cold dust (-180 degrees centigrade) in orbit around the star.

The irregular shape of the disk is the clue that it is likely to contain planets explains astronomer Mark Wyatt, the author of the paper. Although we cant directly observe the planets, they have created clumps in the disk of dust around the star.

The modelling suggests that the Neptune-like planet actually formed much closer to the star than its current position. As it moved out to its current wide orbit over about 56 million years, many comets were swept out with it, causing the dust disk to be clumpy.

Exactly the same process is thought to have happened in our Solar System, said Wyatt, Neptune was pushed away from the Sun because of the presence of Jupiter orbiting inside it. So it appears that as well as having a Neptune-like planet, Vega may also have a more massive Jupiter-like planet in a smaller orbit.

The model can be tested in two ways as Wayne Holland, who made the original observations, explains The model predicts that the clumps in the disk will rotate around the star once every three hundred years. If we take more observations after a gap of a few years we should see the movement of the clumps. Also the model predicts the finer detail of the disks clumpiness which can be confirmed using the next generation of telescopes and cameras.

Paradoxically the star barely appears in the SCUBA image because it is far too hot to be seen with this kind of detector. Vega is, however, easily seen with the naked eye. It is the third brightest star visible from Northern latitudes and is bluish-white in colour. Tonight you can see it in the west at around 7pm.

Facts about Vega
* Vega is the fifth brightest star in the sky and the third brightest visible in the Northern hemisphere.
* It is 25 light years away from the Sun (1AU is the distance between the Earth and Sun).
* It has a diameter three times bigger than the Sun.
* It is 58 times brighter than the Sun.
* Together with Deneb and Altair, Vega forms the summer triangle.
* Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the Harp. The lyre, or harp, is supposed to have been invented by the Greek God Hermes who gave it to his half-brother Apollo. Apollo then gave it to his son Orpheus, the musician of the Argonaughts.
* Vega was the first star ever to be photographed. During the night of July 16-17 1850 the historic picture was taken at Harvard Observatory using a 15 inch refractor telescope during a 100 second exposure.

Original Source: PPARC News Release

Cheap Method for Finding Extrasolar Planets

Image credit: ESA

Astronomers from the University of Texas at Austin believe they’ve figured out an inexpensive way to search for extrasolar planets. After stars like our own Sun use up their fuel they eventually turn into red giant stars, and then shrink again to become white dwarfs. Although the process will likely destroy the inner planets, the outer planets will probably still remain in orbit around the star. These white dwarfs are known to pulsate at a specific rate, so the gravity of a planet moving around the star should affect this pulse rate by a minute amount that should be detectable by inexpensive Earth-based telescopes.

University of Texas at Austin astronomers have invented an inexpensive method to determine if other solar systems like our own exist.

Among the more than 100 stars now known to have planets, astronomers have found few systems similar to ours. It?s unknown if this is because of technological limitations or if our system is truly a rare configuration. The McDonald Observatory astronomers? novel search method uses a Depression-era telescope mated with today?s technology.

Astronomers Don Winget and Edward Nather, graduate students Fergal Mullally and Anjum Mukadem, and colleagues are looking for the “leftovers” of solar systems like ours. Their method searches for the pieces of such a solar system after its star has died, by exploiting a trait of ancient, burnt-out Suns called “white dwarfs.”

University of Texas astronomers Bill Cochran and Ted von Hippel are also involved, along with S.O. Kepler of Brazil?s Universidade Federal de Rio Grande dol Sul and Antonio Kanaan of Brazil?s Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.

Astronomers know that as Sun-like stars use up their nuclear fuel, their outer layers will expand, and the star will become a “red giant” star. When this happens to the Sun, in about five billion years, they expect it will swallow Mercury and Venus, perhaps not quite reaching Earth. Then the Sun will blow off its outer layers and will exist for a few thousand years as a beautiful, wispy planetary nebula. The Sun?s leftover core will then be a white dwarf, a dense, dimming cinder about the size of Earth. And, most important, it likely will still be orbited by the outer planets of our solar system.

Once a Sun-like system reaches this state, Winget?s team may be able to find it. Their method is based on more than three decades of research on the variability (that is, changes in brightness) of white dwarfs. In the early 1980s, University of Texas astronomers discovered that some white dwarfs vary, or “pulsate,” in regular bursts. More recently, Winget and colleagues discovered that about one-third of these pulsating white dwarfs (PWDs) are more reliable timekeepers than atomic clocks and most millisecond pulsars.

These pulsations are the key to detecting planets. Planets orbiting a stable PWD star will affect observations of its timekeeping, appearing to cause periodic variations in the patterns of pulses coming from the star. That?s because the planet orbiting the PWD drags the star around as it moves. The change in distance between the star and Earth will change the amount of time taken for the light from the pulsations to reach Earth. Because the pulses are very stable, astronomers can calculate the difference between the observed and expected arrival time of the pulses and deduce the presence and properties of the planet. (This method is similar to that used in the discoveries of the so-called “pulsar planets.” The difference is, the pulsar companions are not thought to have formed with their stars, but only after those stars had exploded in supernovae.)

“This search will be sensitive to white dwarfs which were initially between one and four times as massive as the Sun, and should be able to detect planets within two to 20 AU from their parent star. This means we?ll be probing inside the habitable zone for some stars,” Winget said. (An AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance between Earth and the Sun.) “Basically, detecting Jupiter at Jupiter?s distance with this technique is easy. It?s duck soup,” he said.

Easy, but not quick. Outer planets, orbiting their stars at large distances, can take more than a decade to complete one orbit. Therefore, it can take many years of observations to definitively detect a planet orbiting a white dwarf.

“You need to look for a long time for a full orbit,” Winget said. “A half-orbit or a third of an orbit will tell us something?s going on there. But for a planet at Jupiter?s distance, a half-orbit is still six years.” Winget added that for this method, “detecting Jupiter at Uranus? distance is easier, but takes even longer.”

For the PWD planet search, Nather conceived a specialized new instrument for McDonald Observatory?s 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope. He and Mukadam designed and built the instrument, called Argos, to measure the amount of light coming from target stars. Specifically, Argos is a “CCD photometer” ? a photon counter that uses a charge-coupled device to record images. Located at the prime focus of the Struve Telescope, Argos has no optics other than the telescope?s 2.1-meter primary mirror. Copies of Argos are now being built at other observatories around the world.

Mullally continues the search for planets around white dwarfs with Argos on the Struve Telescope. He has 22 target stars, most of which were identified through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. When the team finds promising planet candidates with Argos, they will follow up using the 9.2-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory.

“If we find large planets orbiting at large distances, that?s a good clue that there might be smaller planets closer in. In that case, what you do is pound away on that target with the largest telescope you have access to,” Winget said. The HET will enable more precise timing of the PWD?s pulses, and thus be able to pinpoint smaller planets.

This search will be able to study types of stars unable to be studied with the doppler spectroscopy method ? the most successful planet search method to date ? Winget said. Because of idiosyncrasies in the make-up of Sun-like stars, the doppler spectroscopy method is not very sensitive in looking for planets around stars twice as massive as the Sun. Roughly half of the stars in Winget?s study will be white dwarfs that were originally these types of stars. For this reason, the PWD study at McDonald can be instrumental in scouting and assessing targets and observing strategies for NASA space missions planned in the next two decades, specifically the Space Interferometry Mission, Terrestrial Planet Finder and Kepler spacecraft.

This research is funded by a NASA Origins grant, as well as an Advanced Research Project grant from the State of Texas. Through funding from the Texas Higher Education Agency, two secondary schoolteachers (Donna Slaughter of Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas, and Chris Cotter of Lanier High School in Austin) have been directly involved in this research. Plans are now underway to extend this involvement to other teachers, and the students in their classrooms by bringing the science, scientists and the Observatory directly into the classroom using the Internet. Cotter and his colleagues at Lanier High School are involved with Mullally in testing this concept.

Original Source: McDonald Observatory News Release

Searching for Moons Around Distant Planets

Image credit: ESA

The European Space Agency is working on a new mission that could be able to detect moons orbiting planets in other star systems. In 2008, the ESA will launch Eddington, which will detect the drop in light as planets as small as Mars pass in front of their parent stars. Astronomers should theoretically be able to detect moons going around those planets because of their gravity – if the planet dims the star a few minutes earlier or later than expected, it will have one or more moons.

ESA is now planning a mission that can detect moons around planets outside our Solar System, those orbiting other stars.

Everyone knows our Moon: lovers stare at it, wolves howl at it, and ESA recently sent SMART-1 to study it. But there are over a hundred other moons in our Solar System, each a world in its own right.

A moon is a natural body that travels around a planet. Moons are a by-product of planetary formation and can range in size from small asteroid-sized bodies of a few kilometres in diameter to several thousand kilometres, larger even than the planets Mercury and Pluto.

Landing on another moon
One such large moon is Titan, the target for ESA?s daring Huygens mission that in 2005 will become the first spacecraft ever to land on a moon of another planet. Titan is slightly bigger than the planet Mercury, and is only called a moon because it orbits the giant planet Saturn rather than the Sun.

Four other large moons can be found around another of our neighbours, Jupiter. These are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Europa has captured attention because beneath its icy surface, scientists think that an ocean covers the entire moon. Some scientists have even speculated that microscopic life might be found in that ocean.

Habitable moons?
In 2008, ESA plans to launch its ?rocky planet? finder Eddington. By detecting the drop in light seen when a world passes in front of its parent star, Eddington will be capable of discovering planets the size of Jupiter, and also those smaller than Mars.

That means, if our own Solar System is anything to go by, it will be capable of detecting moons similar in size to Titan and the four large moons of Jupiter.

It would be particularly exciting if such combinations of planets and moons were found orbiting a star at Earth?s distance from the Sun. Perhaps then the surfaces of the moons would be warmed to habitable levels.

Orbital dancing
What about moons similar to our own? An equivalent of Earth?s moon would be too small to be detected directly by Eddington, but such a body would affect the way its planet moves and it is that movement which Eddington could detect.

The Earth and the Moon orbit the Sun like ballroom dancers who move around the floor, simultaneously twirling about one another. This means the Earth does not follow a strictly circular path through space, sometimes it will be leading the Moon and sometimes trailing.

This causes variations of up to five minutes from where the Earth would be if it did not possess a moon. By precisely timing when a rocky planet passes in front of its star, Eddington will be able to show if a moon is pulling its planet out of a strictly circular path around the star.

So, how many moons can Eddington expect to find circling planets around other stars? If we make an estimate based on our own Solar System, several thousands will be found ? however, no one knows for sure. That?s what makes the quest so exciting!

Original Source: ESA News Release

Searching For Life on Non-Earthlike Planets

Image credit: NASA

A team of astronomers from Ohio State University believe that we should be seeking life on a wider range of planets than previously speculated. They calculated that NASA’s upcoming Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) should be able to detect habitable planets near stars which are much larger than the Sun. This opens up a whole new range of planets to look at. SIM was originally supposed to launch in 2009, but NASA is considering whether to use these funds to maintain Hubble past 2010 instead.

The search for life on other planets could soon extend to solar systems that are very different from our own, according to a new study by an Ohio State University astronomer and his colleagues.

In fact, finding a terrestrial planet in such a solar system would offer unique scientific opportunities to test evolution, said Andrew Gould, professor of astronomy here.

In a recent issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, he and his coauthors calculated that NASA?s upcoming Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) would be able to detect habitable planets near stars significantly more massive than the sun.

Scientists have typically thought that the search for life should focus on finding planets like Earth that orbit stars like the sun, but this new finding shows that ?the field is wide open,? Gould said.

?Here?s a type of solar system that we never thought to look at,? he added, ?but now we?ll have the tools to do it.?

Gould is on the science team that is helping to plan the SIM mission, and he is working to define the capabilities of the satellite.

The satellite was set to launch in 2009, but its fate is now uncertain. NASA is considering whether to divert funds to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope beyond its scheduled retirement in 2010, Gould explained, and he has been asked to address the issue for an assembly of astronomers in Washington D.C. on Thursday, July 31.

SIM would help astronomers find habitable planets, Gould said. The key is detecting planets that circle a star at just the right distance to maintain a supply of liquid water. The range of most promising orbits depends on the type of the star, and is called the ?habitable zone.?

The earth resides directly in the habitable zone for our solar system, some 93 million miles from the sun. The nearest planets, Venus and Mars, barely lie within the edges of the habitable zone.

Hotter, more massive stars have always been considered less likely to harbor life, though not because they would be too hot. Planets could still enjoy temperate climates, just at orbits farther away from the star.

The problem is one of time, not temperature, Gould said.
Hotter stars tend to ?burn out? faster — perhaps too fast for life to develop there.

Our sun is approximately 4.5 billion years old; in contrast, one of the stars examined in the study is 1.5 times more massive than the sun, and would probably only generate life-sustaining energy for about two billion years.

Given the billions of years required for evolution of life on earth, scientists could question whether life would stand a chance in a shorter-lived solar system.

?We have no idea how evolution would proceed on any planet other than our own,? Gould said. ?If we find a planet around a shorter-lived star, we may be able to test what would happen to evolution under those circumstances.?

SIM will use Interferometry — a technique that involves the interference of light waves — to very accurately measure the position of stars in the sky. The satellite would notice, for instance, if a point of light on the surface of the moon moved the width of a dime.

In the case of distant stars, SIM will pick up on the tiny wobble in the position of a star caused by the gravity of its orbiting planets.

That?s what will make SIM ideal for studying hotter, massive stars, Gould said. Planets that orbit far from a star — as the habitable planets around a hot star would have to do — create a larger wobble.

He and study coauthors Eric B. Ford of Princeton University and Debra A. Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley, determined that SIM is sensitive enough for the task.

Previously, Gould and Ohio State professor Darren DePoy and graduate student Joshua Pepper determined that another future NASA mission could be used to find habitable planets around very small stars, which are much more plentiful in the galaxy than stars like our sun.

That mission, the Kepler Mission, will detect planetary transits — events where planets pass in front of a star and block the star?s light from reaching earth. Transits of planets orbiting close to a star are easier to detect, and because these small stars are very dim, the habitable zone would also be very close to the star.

?The point is that the various methods for planet detection complement each other, and can be used to find habitable planets around a wide variety of stars,? Gould said.

NASA funded this research.

Original Source: OSU News Release