NASA to Announce New Class of Planets
- NASA to Announce New Class of Planets
By JOSEPH B. VERRENGIA, AP Science Writer
Astronomers have discovered four new planets in a week's time, an
exciting end-of-summer flurry that signals a sharper era in the hunt
for new worlds.
While none of these new bodies would be mistaken as Earth's twin,
some appear to be noticeably smaller and more solid more like Earth
and Mars than the gargantuan, gaseous giants identified before.
Planet-hunting is the hottest field in astronomy, with hundreds of
researchers joining a race that just a decade ago was reserved for a
few dreamers. This past week has been a dizzying one with three teams
in the United States and Europe rushing to announce their discoveries
of new exoplanets those orbiting stars other than our sun.
On Tuesday, NASA (news - web sites) was expected to cap the
excitement with details on what the space agency describes as a "new
class" of exoplanets found by one of the American teams, led by
University of California-Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy.
At least two of the newly discovered bodies including one NASA is
expected to describe probably are comparable in scale to
intermediate-sized planets in our solar system like Neptune and
Uranus, which are about 14 times the mass of Earth. That sounds huge,
but many of the previous exoplanets have been closer to the size of
Jupiter, about 318 times the mass of Earth.
"It's been a great week," said David Charbonneau of the Harvard-
Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., where
scientists announced a competing discovery last week. "They have
finally broken through to a new level."
Now many experts say it won't be long before astronomers detect
planets that are similar to Earth's dimensions and characteristics
perhaps even suitable for sustaining life with an oxygen-rich
atmosphere and oceans.
NASA's announcement comes on the heels of the first discovery ever of
a multiple planet system beyond our own solar system by a European
team led by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of
Geneva. The pair discovered the first exoplanet in 1995, and has
found dozens of others in what observers describe as a "good-
natured," but serious race with the Americans.
NASA officials wouldn't discuss details of the latest findings
Even the largest planet cannot be directly seen by the best
telescopes because it is hidden in the halo of its star's bright
glare. But astronomers have come up with methods for detecting these
bodies by measuring how much a star wobbles from the gravitational
tug of an orbiting planet.
The European team describes its new object as a "super-Earth" that is
the smallest planet to be found outside of our solar system.
The planet was spotted in June orbiting a southern hemisphere star
called mu Arae located 50 light-years away in the constellation
Alter. It orbits mu Arae every 9.5 days and has a temperature of more
than 1,160 degrees. Its dimensions are more like Neptune or Uranus,
and it represents the upper limit of the size of solid planets.
This "super-Earth" appears to be orbiting between the star and a
larger, previously known exoplanet, making it the first multiple
planet system to be spotted beyond our own solar system.
"We are getting closer to finding a solar system," more like our own
one that has an Earth-sized planet in the inner region and a Jupiter-
sized planet in the outer region, said Alan Boss, a planet-formation
theorist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington. Boss did not
directly participate in the new planet searches.
"It could be they've found the tip of the iceberg of a wide range of
planets of Earthlike masses," he said.
The third and fourth planets are both Jupiter-sized, less Earthlike
gas giants. One was spotted by the Europeans and is so close to its
parent star that it completes an orbit in just four days. The other
was discovered by the Harvard-Smithsonian center and orbits a star in
the constellation Lyra 500 light-years away.
What makes the American discovery noteworthy is it was found through
a network of small telescopes.
In the next 20 years, NASA hopes to launch new space observatories to
get a sharper view of exoplanets and perhaps find some that are more
Earthlike. The first mission, known as the Kepler observatory, is
scheduled to launch in 2007.
Meanwhile, astronomers caution against jumping to grand conclusions
about these strange new worlds.
"Very few solar systems seem to be built along the same lines as
ours," said Timothy Brown of the National Center for Atmospheric
Research in Boulder, Colo., who was a leader of the Harvard-
Brown compares planet-hunting today to the efforts of early
biologists who were confounded by strange new specimens.
"You tend to think that all fish have fins, and then you pull up an
octopus," Brown said. "There's just a vast amount that we don't