December 03, 2011

Caltech-Led Team of Astronomers Finds 18 New Planets

The discovery is the largest collection of confirmed planets around stars more massive than the sun aside from the discoveries made by the Kepler mission. The Kepler space telescope has so far identified more than 1,200 possible planets, but the majority of those have not yet been confirmed.

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—such as the number and size of the planets, or their orbital shapes—will depend on the mass of the star. For instance, a more massive star would mean a bigger disk, which in turn would mean more material to produce a greater number of giant planets.

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 says.

There's another interesting twist, he adds: "Not only do we find Jupiter-like planets more frequently around massive stars, but we find them in wider orbits." If you took a sample of 18 planets around sunlike stars, he explains, half of them would orbit close to their stars. But in the cases of the new planets, all are farther away, at least 0.7 astronomical units from their stars. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from Earth to the sun.)

In systems with sunlike stars, gas giants like Jupiter acquire close orbits when they migrate toward their stars. According to theories of planet formation, gas giants could only have formed far from their stars, where it's cold enough for their constituent gases and ices to exist. So for gas giants to orbit nearer to their stars, certain gravitational interactions have to take place to pull these planets in. Then, some other mechanism—perhaps the star's magnetic field—has to kick in to stop them from spiraling into a fiery death.

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