This article serves as an introduction to the topic of planets outside of our Solar System, one of the most important areas of research in astronomy today.
What Are Extrasolar Planets?
by Matt Williams | Universe Today
For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the Universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.
And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the Universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (over 4000 and counting!)
An extrasolar planet (aka. exoplanet) is a planet that orbits a star (i.e. is part of a solar system) other than our own. Our Solar System is only one among billions and many of them most likely have their own system of planets. As early as the sixteenth century, there have been astronomers who hypothesized the existence of extrasolar planets.
The first recorded mention was made by Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, an early supporter of the Copernican theory. In addition to supporting the idea that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun (heliocentrism), he put forward the view that the fixed stars are similar to the Sun and are likewise accompanied by planets.
In the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton made a similar suggestion in the “General Scholium” section which concludes his Principia. Making a comparison to the Sun’s planets, he wrote “And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”
Since Newton’s time, various discovery claims have been made, but all were rejected by the scientific community as false positives. In the 1980s, a group of astronomers claimed that they had identified some extrasolar planets in nearby star systems, but were unable to confirm their existence until years later.
One of the reasons why extrasolar planets are so difficult to detect is because they are even fainter than the stars they orbit. Additionally, these stars give off light that “washes” the planets out – i.e. obscures them from direct observation. As a result, the first discovery was not made until 1992 by astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail.
Using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the pair observed several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. It was not until 1995 that the first exoplanet confirmation around a main-sequence star was made. In this case, the planet observed was 51 Pegasi b, a giant planet found in a four-day orbit around the Sun-like star 51 Pegasi (approx 51 light-years from our Sun).
Initially, most of the planets detected were gas giants similar to, or larger than, Jupiter – which led to the term “Super-Jupiter” being coined. Far from suggesting that gas giants were more common than rocky (i.e. “Earth-like“) planets, these findings were simply due to the fact that Jupiter-sized planets are simply easier to detect because of their size.