August 25, 2010

Maybe Sun Ra Really DID Come From Another Planet…

by Heather Falconer

(c) Nasa.gov

Hunting exoplanets is a relatively new activity: scientists have really only been doing so successfully for the last 15 years. In that short time their success has been impressive, though – 450 have already been catalogued. Now, a new discovery could help astronomers understand more about the formation of solar systems and potentially lead to discoveries of life on other planets.

Exoplanets (or extra solar planets) are simply planets that exist outside of our solar system. Most of the time these exoplanets are “giants,” about the size of Jupiter, and occur by themselves or with one other planet. The discovery being considered for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, though, shows seven exoplanets orbiting the star HD 10180, one of which is very close in size to Earth.

Hunting exoplanets is not an easy activity, to say the least. Unable to see the planets against the glare of the star they orbit, scientists use telescopes and highly sensitive devices to measure the star’s “wobble.” By observing the movement of a star over time, it is possible to determine the gravitational forces working on it and, as a result, the potential planets orbiting it. (The larger the exoplanet, the more gravitational pull, which explains why most of the systems discovered contain planets much larger than our own.) Other detection techniques are also used in conjunction to further identify size and composition. This is not an easy task when you consider how far away they are! HD 10180 is approximately 100 light years away from Earth.

As more and more exoplanets are discovered, scientists are becoming confident that planets and systems like our own exist. Now, if only someone could figure out a way of getting us there in less than 100 years…

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.