Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Closer to home

26.01.2006


Discovery of small, rocky, extrasolar world suggests such planets may be common



Using a relatively new planet-hunting technique that can spot worlds one-tenth the mass of our own, researchers have discovered a potentially rocky, icy body that may be the smallest planet yet found orbiting a star outside our solar system.

The discovery suggests the technique, gravitational microlensing, may be an exceptional technology for finding distant planets with traits that could support life.


"This is an important breakthrough in the quest to answer the question ’Are we alone?’" said Michael Turner, assistant director for the NSF mathematical and physical sciences directorate. "The team has discovered the most Earth-like planet yet, and more importantly, has demonstrated the power of a new technique that is sensitive to detecting habitable planets. It can probe a much greater portion of our galaxy and is complementary to other techniques."

Located more than 20,000 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius, close to the center of our Milky Way galaxy, planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb is approximately five-and-a-half times the mass of Earth.

Orbiting a star one-fifth the mass of the sun at a distance almost three times that of Earth’s orbit, the newly discovered planet is frigid: the estimated surface temperature is -364 degrees Fahrenheit (-220 degrees Celsius).

Although astronomers doubt this cold body could sustain organisms, researchers believe gravitational microlensing will bring opportunities for observing other rocky planets in the "habitable zones" of stars where temperatures are perfect for maintaining liquid water and spawning life.

The discovery, authored by 73 collaborators from 32 institutions, appears in the Jan. 26 issue of the journal Nature.

OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment) project telescopes first observed the lensing event on July 11, 2005. In an attempt to catch microlensing events as they occur, OGLE scans most of the central Milky Way each night, discovering more than 500 microlensing events per year. But to detect the signature of low-mass planets, astronomers must observe these events much more frequently than OGLE’s one survey per night.

So, when OGLE detected the July 11 lensing, its early warning system alerted fellow astronomers across the globe to microlensing event OGLE-2005-BLG-390 (for the 390th Galactic bulge OGLE discovered in 2005). At that point, though, no one knew a planet would emerge.

"The only way to realize the full scientific benefit of our observations is to share the data with our competition," said co-author Bohdan Paczynski of Princeton University and one of the OGLE co-founders.

The telescopes of PLANET (Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork) and RoboNet tracked the July 11 episode to completion, providing the data that confirmed the presence of a previously unknown planet. The telescopes collect observations more frequently in an attempt to detect the microlensing signature of planets.

"This discovery was possible because the sun never rises on the PLANET collaboration," said lead author and PLANET researcher Jean-Philippe Beaulieu of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, France. "The global nature of the PLANET collaboration was crucial for obtaining data throughout the 24-hour planetary signal," he added.

Ironically, when preparing the final report, the researchers discovered that during its test runs, the new MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics) telescope, MOA-2, had taken additional measurements of the lensing event. The 6-foot (1.8-meter) aperture telescope has a wider field-of-view than the OGLE telescope, enabling it to observe 100 million stars many times per night. MOA-2 is one of several recent and future advancements that gravitational microlensing proponents hope will greatly increase the number of Earth-like planet discoveries.

OGLE also has plans to increase the field-of-view of its own telescope, and other microlensing groups are proposing to build a new telescope in South Africa. They have also proposed a space mission to see planets with a mass as small as that of Mars, as well as free-floating planets that no longer orbit a host star.

"The new discovery provides a strong hint that low-mass planets may be much more common than Jupiters," said co-author and PLANET researcher David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame. Until recently, most extrasolar planets researchers have found have been Jupiter-like gas giants. "Microlensing should have discovered dozens of Jupiters by now if they were as common as these five-Earth-mass planets. This illustrates the primary strength of the gravitational microlensing method: its ability to find planets of low-mass."

Low-mass planets can yield signals that are too weak to detect with other methods. With microlensing, the signals of low-mass planets are rare but not weak. Thus, scientists say, the rate of low-mass planet discoveries should increase dramatically if more microlensing events can be searched for planetary signals.

What is microlensing?

The gravitational microlensing technique is based on a concept first discussed by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century. When astronomers observe a star, the light waves generally come straight from the star to the telescope. However, if another star passes directly in between, even if great distances separate the two, the gravity of the nearer object acts like a lens and magnifies the incoming light.

Telescopes cannot resolve the details of the magnified image, but they do notice a peak in light intensity, and when a planet is present around the closer star, the planet’s gravity adds an extra little peak or trough of its own.

Astronomers can use those features to determine how large the planet is and how far away it is from its star. This method is 50 times more likely to detect planets of approximately twice the mass of Jupiter than it is to detect planets closer to the mass of Earth. Even relatively tiny, low-mass objects can give a strong peak signal if alignment is perfect.

Of the more than 150 planets discovered to date, almost all were discovered using a different technique, the radial velocity method. Stars with planets can wobble from the effect of their planets’ gravity, and astronomers can use the wobble to determine the size and orbit of the objects. While incredibly effective, existing technology utilizing this method can find only large, Jupiter-like planets or smaller planets that orbit too close to their host stars to harbor life.

Because this is only the third planet astronomers have detected using gravitational microlensing and already they have found a small, rocky body, the researchers believe there is a strong likelihood that rocky planets may be even more common than their gas-giant brethren. This prediction would agree with one of the models for solar system formation, core accretion, which suggests that small, rocky, "failed Jupiters" should be far more common than the massive gaseous planets.

Josh Chamot | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nsf.gov

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Turning entanglement upside down
22.05.2018 | Universität Innsbruck

nachricht Astronomers release most complete ultraviolet-light survey of nearby galaxies
18.05.2018 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: LZH showcases laser material processing of tomorrow at the LASYS 2018

At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.

At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...

Im Focus: Self-illuminating pixels for a new display generation

There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?

At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

Im Focus: Dozens of binaries from Milky Way's globular clusters could be detectable by LISA

Next-generation gravitational wave detector in space will complement LIGO on Earth

The historic first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes far outside our galaxy opened a new window to understanding the universe. A...

Im Focus: Entangled atoms shine in unison

A team led by Austrian experimental physicist Rainer Blatt has succeeded in characterizing the quantum entanglement of two spatially separated atoms by observing their light emission. This fundamental demonstration could lead to the development of highly sensitive optical gradiometers for the precise measurement of the gravitational field or the earth's magnetic field.

The age of quantum technology has long been heralded. Decades of research into the quantum world have led to the development of methods that make it possible...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Unique scope of UV LED technologies and applications presented in Berlin: ICULTA-2018

12.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Designer cells: artificial enzyme can activate a gene switch

22.05.2018 | Life Sciences

PR of MCC: Carbon removal from atmosphere unavoidable for 1.5 degree target

22.05.2018 | Earth Sciences

Achema 2018: New camera system monitors distillation and helps save energy

22.05.2018 | Trade Fair News

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>