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Extrasolar planet
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Extrasolar planet

An extrasolar planet (or exoplanet) is a planet which orbits a star other than the Sun, and therefore belongs to a planetary system other than our solar system.

Even though extrasolar planets were long proposed, they were not found before 1990, when new space telescopes good enough were constructed. The discovery of extrasolar planets raises the question of whether they support extraterrestrial life.

History of detection

Extrasolar planets were first discovered during the 1990s as a result of improved telescope technology, such as CCD and computer-based image processing along with the Hubble Space Telescope. Such advances allowed for more accurate measurements of stellar motion, allowing astronomers to detect planets, not visually (the luminosity of a planet being too low for such detection), but by measuring gravitational influences upon stars (see astrometrics). In addition, extrasolar planets can be detected by measuring the variance in a star's apparent luminosity, as a planet passes in front of it (see eclipse).

Besides the detection of at least 80 planets (mostly gas giants), many observations point to the existence of millions of comets also in extrasolar systems.

The Polish astronomer Aleksander Wolszczan claimed to have found the first extrasolar planets in 1993, orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. Subsequent investigation has determined that these objects are not "true" planets in that they are technically "sub-brown dwarf masses orbiting an object that is or once was a star"; it is believed that they are unusual remnants of the supernova that produced the pulsar, and did not form as conventional planets do.

The first "true" extrasolar planet was announced on October 6, 1995 by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz; the primary star was 51 Pegasi. Since then dozens of planets have been detected, many by a team led by Geoffrey Marcy at the University of California's Lick and Keck Observatories. The first system to have more than one planet detected was Upsilon Andromedae. The majority of the detected planets have highly elliptical orbits.

As of early 2004, there are 100 known planetary systems around main sequence stars, containing at least 113 known planets. In July, 2004, it was announced that Hubble had been used to detect an additional 100 planets, but the presence of these planets could not yet be confirmed.

Methods of detection

There are currently five methods of detecting extrasolar planets which are too faint to be directly detected by present conventional optical means.


Astrometry method is the oldest method used for discovering extrasolar planets, as early as 1943. A number of candidates have been found since but none of them are confirmed and most astronomers have given up on this method for sake of more successful ones. The method involves measuring of proper motion of a star in search for influence caused by star's planets; unfortunately changes in proper motion are so small that the best current equipment cannot produce reliable enough measurements. This method requires that planets' orbits should be nearly perpendicular to our line of sight, and so planets detected by it could not be confirmed by other methods.

Doppler method

Doppler method involves measuring the displacement in the parent star's spectral lines due to the Doppler effect induced by the planet orbiting the star and moving it through mutual gravitation. This is the first and by far most successful technique used by planet hunters. It is known as the "Doppler method" or "Wobble method". But it works only for relatively nearby stars out to about 160 light-years. It easily finds planets that are close to stars, but struggles to detect those orbiting at great distances. Doppler method can be used to reaffirm findings made by using the transit method.

Gravitational microlensing

The Gravitational microlensing effect occurs when the gravitational field of a planet and its parent star act to magnify the light of a distant background star. For the effect to work the planet and star must pass almost directly between the observer and the distant star; since such events are rare, a very large number of distant stars must be continuously monitored in order to detect planets at a reasonable rate. This method is most fruitful for planets between earth and the center of the galaxy, as the galactic center provides a large number of background stars.

Gravitational microlensing has a checkered past. In 1986, Bohdan Paczynski of Princeton University first proposed using it to look for mysterious dark matter, the unseen material that is thought to dominate the universe. In 1991 he suggested it might be used to find planets. Successes with the gravity lensing method date back to 2002, when a group of Polish astronomers (Professors Andrzej Udalski and Marcin Kubiak and Dr. Michal Szymanski from Warsaw, and Polish-American Professor Bohdan Paczynski from Princeton) during project OGLE (the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment) perfected a workable method. During one month they claimed to find 46 objects, many of which could be planets.

Lensing events are brief, lasting for weeks or days, as the two stars and Earth are all moving relative to each other. More than 1,000 stars have been detected in microlensing relationships over the past ten years.

The key advantage of gravitational microlensing is that it allows low mass (i.e. earth-mass) planets to be detected using available technology. A notable disadvantage is that the lensing cannot be repeated because the chance alignment never occurs again. Also, the detected planets will tend to be several kiloparsecs away, so follow-up observations would not be possible. However, if enough background stars can be observed with enough accuracy then the method can be used to determine how common earth-like planets are in the galaxy.

In addition to the NASA/National Science Foundation-funded OGLE, the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) group is working to perfect this technique. Astronomers expect that it may be possible to detect an earth-sized world within five years.

Transit method

The most recently developed method, detects a planet's shadow when it transitss in front of its host star. This "Transit method", as it is called, works only for the small percentage of planets whose orbits happen to be perfectly aligned from our vantagepoint. It also can be used, however, on very distant stars. The transit method is expected to lead to the first detection of an Earth-size planet when it is employed by NASA's space-based Kepler observatory set to launch in 2007.

Most of the planets found are of relatively high mass (at least 40 times that of the Earth); however, a couple seem to be approximately the size of the Earth. This reflects the current telescope technology, which is not able to detect smaller planets. The mass distribution should not be taken as a reference for a general estimate, since it is likely that many more planets with smaller mass, even in nearby solar systems, are still undetected.

The Kepler Space Mission will be launched in the next few years. It is a space-based telescope designed specifically to search large numbers of stars for Earth-sized terrestrial planets using this method.

Circumstellar Disks

An even newer approach is that of studying dust clouds. Many solar systems contain a significant amount of space dust that is present due to frequent dust generation activity such as comets, asteroid and planetary collisions. This dust forms as a disc around a star and absorbs regular star light and re-emits it as infrared radiation. These dust clouds can provide invaluable information through studies of their density and distortion, caused either by an orbiting planet "catching" the dust, or distortion due to gravitational influences of orbiting planets.

Unfortunately this method can only be employed by space based observations because our atmosphere absorbs most infrared radiation making ground based observation impossible. Our own solar system contains enough dust to make up about 1/10th the mass of our moon. Despite this mass being negligible its surface area is so great that at a distance, its infrared emmisions would outshine all our planets by a factor of 100.

The HST(Hubble Space Telescope) is capable of these observations using its NICMOS(Near Infrared Camera and Multi-object Spectrometer) instrument, but was unable to do so due to a cooling unit malfunction that left NICMOS inoperational between 1999 and 2002. Even better images were then taken by its sister instrument, the Spitzer Space Telescope (formerly SIRTF, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility), in 2003. The Spitzer Telescope was designed specifically for use in the infrared range and probes far deeper into the spectrum than the HST is capable of.

Solar system formation processes

One question raised by the detection of extrasolar planets is why so many of the detected planets are gas giants which, in comparison to Earth's solar system, are unexpectedly close to the orbited star. For example, Tau Bo÷tis has a planet 4.1 times Jupiter's mass, which is less than a quarter of an astronomical unit (AU) from the orbited star; HD 114762 has a planet 11 times Jupiter's mass, which is less than half an AU from the orbited star. One possible answer to these unexpected planetary orbits is that since astrometrics detects the extrasolar planets due to their gravitational influences and partially-ecliptic interference, perhaps current technology only permits the detection of systems where a large planet is close to the orbited star, rather than such systems being the norm.

The frequency of extrasolar planets is one of the parameters in the Drake equation, which attempts to estimate the probability of communications with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Notable extrasolar planets

On November 27, 2001, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope announced that they had detected the atmosphere of the planet orbiting HD 209458 (known as HD 209458b and provisionally dubbed "Osiris"). Also during that year, a star was located which had the remnants of one or more planets within the stellar atmosphere — apparently the planet was mostly vaporized. It has been suggested that there may be planets that orbit so closely to their suns that most of their mass has been stripped away by the heat, provisionally referred to as Cthonian planets.

On July 10, 2003, using information obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists discovered the oldest extrasolar planet yet. Dubbed Methuselah after the biblical figure, the planet is about 5,600 light years from Earth, has a mass twice that of Jupiter, and is estimated to be 13 billion years old. It is located in the globular star cluster M4, approximately 7200 light years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius.

On April 15, 2004, separate teams announced the discoveries of three planets outside our solar system, including one that is 17,000 light years away, more than three times farther away than the previous record holder. The background star that was used in the gravitational lensing is 24,000 light-years away.

The newly-discovered exoplanet is estimated to be about 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter and presumed to be similarly gaseous. It orbits the star about 3 astronomical units (AU). Jupiter is 5.2 AU from the Sun.

The same day, a European team of planet hunters based at the Geneva Observatory found two giant planets using the transit method.

Both planets are called "hot Jupiters," close to one Jupiter-mass but orbiting its star so closely that it completes an orbit in less than two earth days.

The planned Space Interferometry Mission and Terrestrial Planet Finder would both have to examine more nearby systems.

See the list of stars with confirmed extrasolar planets for a list of confirmed observations.

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