The Hunt is On
For now, the planet-hunting trophy goes to the team led by Geoffrey W. Marcy and R. Paul Butler of San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. They helped confirm the results announced by Mayor and Queloz, and then swiftly turned up three planets of their own. More discoveries are surely on the way: Marcy reports that "we see hints of planets in a lot of our data." His group has set up a dedicated planet-search Web site to keep up with the rapid progress of the work. A fifth planetary detection will be reported by George Gatewood of the University of Pittsburgh at the upcoming meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
Nobody has actually seen the new planets; they were all identified indirectly, by measuring the way they influenced the motion of their parent stars. As an object orbits a star, its gravitational pull causes the star to wobble back and forth. That motion creates a periodic displacement, or Doppler shift,in the spectrum of the star as seen from the earth. Marcy and Butler, like Mayor and Queloz and several other teams, examine spectra for the tiny displacements that could denote the presence of planets. The Doppler technique can reveal the orbit and the minimum mass of an orbiting body, but no details of its nature.
Gatewood takes a somewhat different approach, one that relies on direct observation of stellar motion. Stars are not fixed in place; they appear to drift across the sky, though very slowly. The same back-and-forth movement that produces Doppler shifts also causes a star's path to appear as a zig-zag rather than a straight line. Gatewood and his colleagues are looking--very carefully--for those telltale wiggles. That precision measurement of stellar positions is known as astrometry.
The success of these techniques has sent ripples of excitement through the astronomical community and captured the public imagination. Despite some overzealous early statements, the newfound bodies are very unlikely to harbor life (much less intelligent life). But they do suggest that planets are common throughout the cosmos, raising the hope that living things flourish somewhere among the multitude of worlds. The planets are also quite unlike anything in our solar system, forcing theorists to reconsider their notions of how stars and planets form
Strange New Worlds
The planet around 51 Pegasi is perhaps the oddest of the bunch. Its mass is at least half that of Jupiter, and yet it orbits just seven million kilometers from its star--less than one eighth Mercury's distance from the sun. At such proximity, the planet's surface should be baked to a theoretical temperature of 1,300 degree Celsius. It whizzes around its star so quickly that its "year" is just four days long.
Marcy and Butler recently posted a notice on their Web site of the discovery of a somewhat similar planet circling the star HR3522, also known as 55 Rho Cancri. (Marcy describes the announcement as an experiment in "publishing by Internet": a way to air a new finding before passing it through peer review.) This object has at least four fifths the mass of Jupiter and orbits at a distance of about 25 million kilometers.