Length of Exoplanet Day Measured for First Time
Observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have, for the first time, determined the rotation rate of an exoplanet. Beta Pictoris b has been found to have a day that lasts only eight hours... much quicker than any planet in the Solar System — its equator is moving at almost 100,000 kilometres per hour. ...Similar techniques will allow astronomers to map exoplanets in detail in the future with the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT)
Herschel Finds Star Possibly Making Planets Past Its Prime
A star thought to have passed the age at which it can form planets may in fact be creating new worlds. The findings were made using the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Telescope, a mission in which NASA is a participant.
NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega
Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega, the second brightest star in northern night skies. The scientists used data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, in which NASA plays an important role.
NASA's Hubble Reveals Rogue Planetary Orbit For Fomalhaut B
Hubble Space Telescope images of a vast debris disk around the nearby star Fomalhaut show a mysterious planet called Fomalhaut b orbiting between 4.6 billion miles and 27 billion miles away from the star, creating a titanic planetary disruption in the system.
ESO's HARPS instrument finds Earth-mass exoplanet orbiting Alpha Centauri B
European astronomers, using the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, have discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system — the nearest star system to Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun.
New Biomarkers Honed to Help Search for Life on Earthlike Exoplanets
Scientific American article by Ron Cowan, 7/24. "Expectations are running high that some time next year astronomers using NASA's Kepler spacecraft will announce the discovery that planet hunters have been waiting for: the first Earth-size exoplanet found in a region around a sunlike star where life could flourish." ... meantime, "technology and Victoria Meadows of the University of Washington in Seattle are honing-and expanding-the list of compounds that may serve as biomarkers for exoplanets orbiting stars of different sizes and ages."
NASA'S Spitzer Finds Evidence for an Exoplanet Smaller than Earth
Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have detected what they believe is a planet called UCF-1.01 two-thirds the size of Earth located a mere 33 light-years away, making it possibly the nearest world to our solar system that is smaller than our home planet.Its diameter would be approximately 5,200 miles (8,400 kilometers)and orbits around GJ 436 at about seven times the distance of the Earth from the moon, with its "year" lasting only 1.4 Earth days.
NASA's Spitzer Sees the Light of Alien "Super Earth"
PASADENA, Calif. – NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected light emanating from a "super-Earth" planet beyond our solar system for the first time. While the planet is not habitable, the detection is a historic step toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets.
'Nomad' planets may outnumber stars in Milky Way
A team of astronomers who scan the Milky Way for distant solar systems have concluded there could be thousands, perhaps billions, of "nomad" planets floating through the galaxy with no star like our sun to anchor them.
Hubble Reveals a New Type of Planet
Observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have added a new type of planet to the mix. By analyzing the previously discovered world GJ1214b, astronomer Zachory Berta (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and colleagues proved that it is a waterworld enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. See Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Release No.: 2012-04
Herschel Space Observatory Finds Oceans of Water in Planet-Forming Disk Around Nearby Star
Using data from the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have detected for the first time cold water vapor enveloping a dusty disk around a young star. The findings suggest that this disk, which is poised to develop into a solar system, contains great quantities of water, suggesting that water-covered planets like Earth may be common in the universe.
Fifty New Planets Found—Largest Haul Yet
National Geographic article. Fifty new alien worlds, including 16 "super Earths," have been found...using an instrument called HARPS—short for High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher—at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile. Alan Gould, an astronomy educator at the University of California, Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, ...[said] "This is looking more and more like a golden age of exoplanet discovery."
Rage Against the Dying of the Light
Geoff Marcy is mad. ... mad at NASA for canceling exoplanet missions like the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) and the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM).
...Marcy expressed his ire at a recent exoplanet symposium hosted by MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager. "I'm unhappy about the last ten years, and the next ten years," he said.
...While the Kepler mission has been a huge success, and potentially will allow astronomers to discover a truly Earth-like planet, Marcy mourns the loss of other missions that would've helped characterize exoplanets, as well as find planets that Kepler could never detect. "I think the case for TPF is more compelling thanks to Kepler," Marcy said.
NASA Aids First Characterization of Super-Earth Atmosphere
A team of astronomers, including two NASA Sagan Fellows, has made the first characterizations of a super-Earth's atmosphere by using a ground-based telescope. ...The findings, reported in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Nature, are a significant milestone toward eventually being able to probe the atmospheres of Earth-like planets for signs of life.
The team determined the planet, GJ 1214b, is either blanketed with a thin layer of water steam or surrounded by a thick layer of high clouds. If the former, the planet itself would have an icy composition. If the latter, the planet would be rocky or similar to the composition of Neptune, though much smaller.
"This is the first super-Earth known to have an atmosphere," said Jacob Bean, a NASA Sagan Fellow and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. (Planet art by David Aguilar. See source article. See also Scientific American article: Astronomers Get First Peek at Atmosphere of a "Super-Earth" Exoplanet)
NASA and NSF-Funded Research Finds First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet
A team of planet hunters from the University of California-Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet with three times the mass of Earth orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star’s “habitable zone.”
Richest Planetary System Discovered
Excerpt: Astronomers using ESO’s world-leading HARPS instrument have discovered a planetary system containing at least five planets, orbiting the Sun-like star HD 10180. The researchers also have tantalising evidence that two other planets may be present, one of which would have the lowest mass ever found. This would make the system similar to our Solar System in terms of the number of planets (seven as compared to the Solar System’s eight planets). Furthermore, the team also found evidence that the distances of the planets from their star follow a regular pattern, as also seen in our Solar System. …The newly discovered system of planets around HD 10180 is unique in several respects. First of all, with at least five Neptune-like planets lying within a distance equivalent to the orbit of Mars, this system is more populated than our Solar System in its inner region, and has many more massive planets there…. Full article at http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1035/
NASA Finds Super Hot Planet With Unique Comet-Like Tail
NASA RELEASE: 10-167 - WASHINGTON - Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of a baked object that could be called a "cometary planet." The gas giant planet, named HD 209458b, is orbiting so close to its star that its heated atmosphere is escaping into space. Observations taken with Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) suggest powerful stellar winds are sweeping the cast-off atmospheric material behind the scorched planet and shaping it into a comet-like tail. …The planet, located 153 light years from Earth, weighs slightly less than Jupiter but orbits 100 times closer to its star than the Jovian giant. …The extrasolar planet is one of the most intensely scrutinized, because it is the first of the few known alien worlds that can be seen passing in front of, or transiting, its star. …During a transit, astronomers study the structure and chemical makeup of a planet's atmosphere by sampling the starlight that passes through it. …COS detected the heavy elements carbon and silicon in the planet's super-hot 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit atmosphere….
A Giant Planet Imaged in the Disk of the Young Star ? Pictoris
...by Lagrange et al, Science, AAAS. The 10-million-year-old star ? Pictoris, has long been suspected to host a planet. Through images obtained with the Very Large Telescope, an array of four telescopes located in Chile, Lagrange et al. (p. 57, published online 10 June) now confirm the presence of a young, giant planet, ? Pictoris b, orbiting within the dusty disk that surrounds the star. ? Pictoris b orbits closer to its star than Uranus and Neptune do to the Sun in our solar system. This orbital separation is consistent with the in situ formation of the planet via a core accretion mechanism. Thus, giant planets can form within a stellar dust disk in only a few million years.
Earth-like Planets May Be Ready for Their Close-Up
"The problem with finding Earth-like planets," said Stefan Martin, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., "is that their host stars can emit 10 million times more infrared light than the planet itself. ...a "nulling interferometer" observes planets in infrared light, where they are easier to detect. It is designed to combine starlight captured by four different telescopes, arranging the light waves from the star in such a way that they cancel each other out. "We're able to make the star look dimmer -- basically turning it off," Martin said. Nulling interferometry is not a new idea, but what sets the results from Martin and Booth apart is how effective it turned out to be. "Our null depth is 10 to 100 times better than previously achieved by other systems," Martin said. "This is the first time someone has cross-combined four telescopes, set up in pairs, and achieved such deep nulls. It's extreme starlight suppression." Full article with photo at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2010-207
Search for extraterrestrial life gains momentum around the world
By Marc Kaufman, Washington Post
Excerpt: Hat Creek, Calif. -- The wide dishes, 20 feet across and raised high on their pedestals, creaked and groaned as the winds from an approaching snowstorm pushed into this highland valley. Forty-two in all, the radio telescopes laid out in view of some of California's tallest mountains look otherworldly, and now their sounds conjured up visions of deep-space denizens as well.
The instruments, the initial phase of the planned 350-dish Allen Telescope Array, are designed to systematically scan the skies for radio signals sent by advanced civilizations from distant star systems and planets. Fifty years after it began -- and 18 years since Congress voted to strip taxpayer money from the effort -- the nation's search for extraterrestrial intelligence is alive and growing....
The Hat Creek array, which began operation two years ago, is a joint project of the SETI Institute and the nearby RADIO ASTRONOMY LABORATORY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT BERKELEY. Made possible by an almost $25 million donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the array is unique and on the cutting edge of radio astronomy. SETI and Berkeley share both the facility, 290 miles northeast of San Francisco, and all the data it collects....
'Super-Earths' inspire hopes for alien life
By David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle Science Editor.
Excerpt: Two teams of astronomers have detected three new "super-Earths" circling nearby stars - one apparently made of rock and water with a thin, sultry atmosphere somewhat analogous to Earth, but much hotter. That planet is lifeless, but finding it strongly increases the likelihood that before long another distant Earth-like planet will be found orbiting another sunlike star and bearing some unknown form of life, says a leading astronomer at UC Berkeley. The advanced equipment to make the discovery possible is already on the horizon, he said. "Momentous breakthroughs" are in sight, said Berkeley planet hunter Geoffrey Marcy in a commentary on the report being published in the journal Nature today. A Harvard group led by astronomer David Charbonneau reported in Nature that the Earth-like planet the team has discovered is 2 1/2 times the size of Earth. Its innards are made of iron, nickel and silicates, more than half the planet is water, and it probably has a thin atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, the international team of planet-hunters said.
... Their new planet, designated GJ1214b, is orbiting a small red dwarf star named Gliese1214 in the constellation Ophiuchus, and is 40 light-years from Earth. Its surface is probably about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, twice as hot as any earthly organism - like the creatures called extremophiles that astrobiologists find in geysers and deep, hot mines - could survive. "This planet is too hot for life as we know it," Charbonneau said in an e-mail. "If it had been just a smidge farther away from its star it would have had the same temperature as the Earth."
... The group, which includes astronomers Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor, who discovered the very first extrasolar planet in 1995, found the new exoplanet after scanning 2,000 very small sunlike stars with an automated bank of eight small telescopes no larger than the ones advanced amateurs use. The telescopes are mounted together as a system they call Mearth (pronounced mirth) at an observatory on Mount Lemmon in Arizona, ...
The detection and characterization of exoplanets
Jonathan I. Lunine, Bruce Macintosh, and Stanton Peale, Physics Today, page 46. Excerpt:
The variety of methods by which planets beyond our solar system can be found will lead to the detection and eventual characterization of Earth-size bodies orbiting their stars at hospitable distances. ...Since 1995, more than 340 planets around stars other than the Sun have been discovered. After centuries of speculation as to whether our planetary system might be one of many, that’s a remarkable achievement. The techniques that have been used to accomplish those discoveries and to study the properties of the exoplanets are based on physical phenomena ranging from the straightforwardly simple—planets tugging gravitationally at their host stars or blocking their light—to the subtle general-relativistic effect of gravitational microlensing. But conceptual simplicity doesn’t make it any less difficult to detect the tiny periodic effect of an orbiting planet on its host’s motion or apparent brightness....
Things to put on your computer to stay up-to-date on exoplanet discoveries: