Exoplanet Hunter Finds 32 New Planets
Search for super-Earths continues
|Artist’s impression of the system Gliese 667. Courtesy of ESO|
The team who built the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, better known as HARPS, the spectrograph for the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s 3.6-meter telescope, has reported on the incredible discovery of some 32 new exoplanets. This result also increases the number of known low-mass planets by an impressive 30 percent.
“HARPS is a unique, extremely high precision instrument that is ideal for discovering alien worlds,” says Stéphane Udry, who made the announcement. “We have now completed our initial five-year program, which has succeeded well beyond our expectations.”
The latest batch of exoplanets comprises 32 new discoveries. Including these new results, data from HARPS have led to the discovery of more than 75 exoplanets in 30 different planetary systems. In particular, the search for small planets, those with a mass of a few times that of the Earth — known as super-Earths and Neptune-like planets — has been given a dramatic boost. HARPS has facilitated the discovery of 24 of the 28 planets known with masses below 20 Earth masses. As with the previously detected super-Earths, most of the new low-mass candidates reside in multi-planet systems, with up to five planets per system.
In 1999, ESO launched a call for opportunities to build a high resolution, extremely precise spectrograph for the ESO 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile. Michel Mayor, from the Geneva Observatory, led a consortium to build HARPS, which was installed in 2003 and was soon able to measure the back-and-forward motions of stars by detecting small changes in a star’s radial velocity — as small as 3.5 km/hour, a steady walking pace.
In return for building the instrument, the HARPS consortium was granted 100 observing nights per year during a five-year period to carry out one of the most ambitious systematic searches for exoplanets so far implemented worldwide by repeatedly measuring the radial velocities of hundreds of stars that may harbour planetary systems. The program soon proved very successful. Using HARPS, Mayor’s team discovered — among others — in 2004, the first super-Earth (around µ Ara; ESO 22/04); in 2006, the trio of Neptunes around HD 69830 (ESO 18/06); in 2007, Gliese 581d, the first super-Earth in the habitable zone of a small star (ESO 22/07); and in 2009, the lightest exoplanet so far detected around a normal star, Gliese 581e (ESO 15/09). More recently, they found a potentially lava-covered world, with a density similar to that of the Earth’s (ESO 33/09).
“These observations have given astronomers a great insight into the diversity of planetary systems and help us understand how they can form,” says team member Nuno Santos.
The HARPS consortium was very careful in their selection of targets, with several sub-programs aimed at looking for planets around solar-like stars, low-mass dwarf stars or stars with a lower metal content than the Sun. The number of exoplanets known around low-mass stars — so-called M dwarfs — has also dramatically increased, including a handful of super-Earths and a few giant planets challenging planetary formation theory.
“By targeting M dwarfs and harnessing the precision of HARPS, we have been able to search for exoplanets in the mass and temperature regime of super-Earths, some even close to or inside the habitable zone around the star,” says co-author Xavier Bonfils.
The team found three candidate exoplanets around stars that are metal-deficient. Such stars are thought to be less favorable for the formation of planets, which form in the metal-rich disc around the young star. However, planets up to several Jupiter masses have been found orbiting metal-deficient stars, setting an important constraint for planet formation models.
Although the first phase of the observing program is now officially concluded, the team will pursue their effort with two ESO Large Programs looking for super-Earths around solar-type stars and M dwarfs.
This discovery was announced at the ESO/CAUP conference “Towards Other Earths: perspectives and limitations in the ELT era,” taking place in Porto, Portugal, in October, 2009. This conference discusses the new generation of instruments and telescopes that is now being conceived and built by different teams around the world to allow the discovery of other Earths, especially for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The new planets are simultaneously presented by Michel Mayor at the international symposium “Heirs of Galileo: Frontiers of Astronomy” in Madrid, Spain.
This research was presented in a series of eight papers published in the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal.
ESO is an intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO operates three observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-meter European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which is anticipated to become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.