18 new Jupiter-like planets discovered

Last Updated: Saturday, December 3, 2011 - 11:30

Washington: Using twin telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, astronomers have discovered 18 new Jupiter-like planets orbiting massive stars.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), surveyed about 300 stars, and focussed on those dubbed “retired” A-type stars that are more than one and a half times more massive than the sun.

These stars are just past the main stage of their life hence, “retired”, and are now puffing up into what’s called a subgiant star.

“It’s the largest single announcement of planets in orbit around stars more massive than the sun, aside from the discoveries made by the Kepler mission,” John Johnson, first author on the paper, said.

The Kepler mission is a space telescope that has so far identified more than 1,200 possible planets, though the majority of those have not yet been confirmed.

To look for planets, the astronomers searched for stars of this type that wobble, which could be caused by the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet. By searching the wobbly stars’ spectra for Doppler shifts, the lengthening and contracting of wavelengths due to motion away from and toward the observer, the team found 18 planets with masses similar to Jupiter’s.

According to Johnson, this new bounty marks a 50 percent increase in the number of known planets orbiting massive stars and, provides an invaluable population of planetary systems for understanding how planets, and our own solar system, might form.

The researchers say that the findings also lend further support to the theory that planets grow from seed particles that accumulate gas and dust in a disk surrounding a newborn star.

According to this theory, tiny particles start to clump together, eventually snowballing into a planet. If this is the true sequence of events, the characteristics of the resulting planetary system like the number and size of the planets, or their orbital shapes will depend on the mass of the star.

In another theory, planets form when large amounts of gas and dust in the disk spontaneously collapse into big, dense clumps that then become planets. But in this picture, it turns out that the mass of the star doesn’t affect the kinds of planets that are produced.

So far, as the number of discovered planets has grown, astronomers are finding that stellar mass does seem to be important in determining the prevalence of giant planets.

The newly discovered planets further support this pattern, and are therefore consistent with the first theory, the one stating that planets are born from seed particles.

“It’s nice to see all these converging lines of evidence pointing toward one class of formation mechanisms,” Johnson added.

The study has been recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.


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First Published: Saturday, December 3, 2011 - 11:30

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