Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Planets More Common in Milky Way than Stars: Planets Everywhere

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Planets Everywhere (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser) This artists’s cartoon view gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. The planets, their orbits and their host stars are all vastly magnified compared to their real separations. A six-year search that surveyed millions of stars using the microlensing technique concluded that planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception. The average number of planets per star is greater than one.

Planet Population is Plentiful

An international team, including three astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has used the technique of gravitational microlensing to measure how common planets are in the Milky Way. After a six-year search that surveyed millions of stars, the team concludes that planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception. The results will appear in the journal Nature on 12 January 2012.

Over the past 16 years, astronomers have detected more than 700 confirmed exoplanets [1] and have started to probe the spectra (eso1002) and atmospheres (eso1047) of these worlds. While studying the properties of individual exoplanets is undeniably valuable, a much more basic question remains: how commonplace are planets in the Milky Way?

Most currently known exoplanets were found either by detecting the effect of the gravitational pull of the planet on its host star or by catching the planet as it passes in front of its star and slightly dims it. Both of these techniques are much more sensitive to planets that are either massive or close to their stars, or both, and many planets will be missed.

An international team of astronomers has searched for exoplanets using a totally different method - gravitational microlensing - that can detect planets over a wide range of mass and those that lie much further from their stars.

Arnaud Cassan (Institut dʼAstrophysique de Paris), lead author of the Nature paper, explains: "We have searched for evidence for exoplanets in six years of microlensing observations. Remarkably, these data show that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy. We also found that lighter planets, such as super-Earths or cool Neptunes, must be more common than heavier ones."

“We used to think that the Earth might be unique in our galaxy. But now it seems that there are literally billions of planets with masses similar to Earth orbiting stars in the Milky Way,” concludes Daniel Kubas, co-lead author of the paper.

Planets Everywhere This artists’s cartoon view gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. The planets, their orbits and their host stars are all vastly magnified compared to their real separations. A six-year search that surveyed millions of stars using the microlensing technique concluded that planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception. The average number of planets per star is greater than one.




The Milky Way over the 1.54-metre Danish Telescope at La Silla Credit: ESO/Z. Bardon (www.bardon.cz)/ProjectSoft (www.projectsoft.cz) The Milky Way above the dome of the Danish 1.54-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. The central part of the Milky Way is visible behind the dome of the ESO 3.6-metre telescope in the distance. On the right the Magellanic Clouds can be seen. This telescope was a major contributor to the PLANET project to search for exoplanets using microlensing. The picture was taken using a normal digital camera with a total exposure time of 15 minutes.

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