Sunday, November 1, 2009

NEW PLANETS AROUND OUR SOLAR SYSTEM

The 32 new planets were found over the past five years using an instrument called a spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile.

Known as HARPS, for High Accuracy Radial velocity Planetary Searcher, the spectrograph detects wobbles in a star's orbit caused by the pull of an unseen exoplanet.

The HARPS team selected stars like our sun, as well as lower-mass dwarf stars, to watch for wobbles.

Red dwarf stars were targets because they are dimmer, low-mass stars, which makes it easier to detect wobbles from low-mass satellite planets, said team member Nuno Santos, of the University of Porto, Portugal.

The 32 newfound exoplanets include several super-Earths, such as two planets no more than five times Earth's mass and two about six times Earth's mass, the Observatory of Geneva's Udry said.

The largest newly discovered exoplanet is a monster at seven to eight times Jupiter's mass, he estimated.

In addition, several Jupiter-mass planets were found around stars that don't have many metals.

Previous theories had stated that planets wouldn't tend to form around metal-poor stars, since planets are thought to take shape inside the metal-filled disks of debris left over from stellar birth.

The new finds suggest that astronomers might need to revise theories of planet formation—and may increase the number of possible star systems in the universe.

(Related: "Turbulence Key to Planet Formation, New Study Suggests.")

Exact details about each of the 32 new planets have yet to be published, Udry said, but "a bunch of the new planets will be described in the next six months."