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Episode 19: Planet Discoveries Revisited

31 Jul 2013, 04:00 UTC
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Planet Discoveries Revisited

The field of extrasolar planets has exploded over the last couple decades, providing an entirely new suite of information on planetary systems in general and perspective on our own solar system in particular. One of the most exciting advances came when astronomers were at last able to see a few of these planets directly. Even those who maintain "I'll believe it when I see it" now have visual proof that our solar system is not alone in the universe. However, science advances rapidly, and the discoveries announced only a few years ago are already ripe for an update. Revisiting three direct detections provides confirmation, archival data, and some spirited scientific discussion.


Hubble press releases:

Hubble Directly Observes Planet Orbiting Fomalhaut
Hubble Reveals Rogue Planetary Orbit for Fomalhaut b
Hubble Finds Hidden Exoplanet in Archival Data
Astronomers Find Elusive Planets in Decade-Old Hubble Data



The previous Hubble's Universe Unfiltered episode which discussed direct observations of exoplanets was called Eye Spy a Planet. That episode was posted four years ago, which shows how fast things can change at the leading edge of astronomical discovery.

The plots of exoplanets, both position on the sky and counts by year, come from the exoplanets.org web site. Their Exoplanets Data Explorer is a web-based plotting tool with considerable flexibility in both the data to be plotted and how it is shown. This interactive tool requires some knowledge of the subject, and more than a bit of patience, but allows one to analyze their catalog of extrasolar planets in myriad ways.

Herschel wanted to name his planet discovery "Georgium Sidus" in honor of King George III, who had awarded him an annual stipend. While a scientist kowtowing to those with power and money sounds crass to today's university research mindset, it is by no means an isolated event in history. Galileo originally called the four large moons of Jupiter the "Medicean Stars" in order to curry favor with the Medici family. It worked, and Galileo obtained patronage from Grand Duke Cosimo II. However, the name reverted to the discoverer, and we call them the Galilean moons.

The two images of Saturn, frontlit and backlit, are a marvelous pair of images. Although in this episode I use them merely as a demonstration of scattering of light, the images speak volumes about the structure of Saturn's ring system. The backlit shot is one of my favorite images in all of astronomy, and I'll use any excuse to include it in a presentation.

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