‘Wobbles' Lead Prof to Discovery of New Planets

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Stars in the sky have long been observed to wobble mysteriously back and forth - but a team of UC Berkeley astronomers found patterns in the peculiar movements and, in the process, discovered three new planets.

Debra Fischer, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow in astronomy, announced this week that she and a team of colleagues have found evidence for the existence of three new massive planets that reside outside our solar system.

The latest discovery not only bumps the number of known extrasolar planets to a total of 44, but also points to a possible pattern that could lead to the discovery of even more planets, researchers said.

"There must be very many more because (wobbles) can be only observed by nearby stars," said Ivan King, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy.

Because stars are located at extreme distances from earth, the most viable method to detect the existence of planets outside of the solar system is to monitor the "wobbling" of stars.

The wobbling is caused by the gravitational forces acting between the star and whatever massive body may be surrounding it.

For example, Jupiter - the most massive of the nine planets in our solar system - causes the sun, a massive star itself, to wobble.

When a star exhibits a wobble, the movement may result from a variety of gravitational forces, including the pull of a neighboring star, another unknown massive object or, in the case of this particular finding, an entire planet.

"Just as the star causes the planet to move in a large orbit, the planet causes the star to move in a smaller orbit," King said. "(But) the more massive star moves very much less than the less massive planet."

In their research, to be published in Astrophysical Journal, Fischer and her team studied a collection of 12 extrasolar stars and found that the unusual movement of the stars is probably due to the existence of associated planets.

The specific pattern of wobbling exhibited by the observed stars allowed the team of astronomers to conclude that the three new planets existed.

According to researchers, the three newly discovered planets are massive gas planets similar in structure and composition to Jupiter. The wobbling of stars showed distinct orbital patterns that could only be the result of the gravitational tug of large planetary bodies, researchers said.

"What makes it so clear is that (the wobbling) repeats so perfectly again and again," King said.

Essentially, the star and the planet attract each other and the forces cause the planet to orbit the stars in a repetitive pattern, much like the way the less massive Earth orbits the sun in specific cycles.

With the continued discovery of planets in the universe, astronomers said they hope to increase their understanding of the overall dynamics of the universe.

"Now that it turns out to be possible to find planets, the game is to find as many as possible to increase the size of the sample and see what types of varieties there are," King said.

Knowing the makeup of the universe is essential to understanding it, Fischer said in a statement.

"It's important to know if there are other companions out there, because anything else in the system will affect the dynamics and theories of how the planets moved in and parked in their current orbits," she said.


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