Extrasolar Planets Essay

1488 words - 6 pages

Humans have longed to believe in extrasolar planets, as surely there have to be planets elsewhere in the universe. Claims of supposedly discovered extrasolar planets can be dated back to 1855 when Captain S. W. Jacobs from the Madras observatory, claimed that he had discovered a planet orbiting a binary system (Jacobs 1855), all the way up until 1991 when a team of astronomers announced then retracted the alleged discovery of an extrasolar planet around a pulsar star (Lyne and Bailes 1992). Planets are extremely hard to detect as they are a very faint light source and the light from its parent star is much brighter and essentially blocks out light from a planet (Winters 1996). It was not until 1992 when the first exoplanets were confirmed orbiting a pulsar star (Wolszczan and Frail 1992). Finally in 1995, the first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star, a star like our sun, was discovered (Mayor and Queloz 1995).
The very first extrasolar planets were discovered to be two Earth-like planets orbiting a pulsar star (Wolszczan and Frail 1992). A pulsar star is a neutron star that is constantly emitting beams of radiation, these beams of radiation occur because of a misalignment of the neutron’s star’s rotation axis and its magnetic axis (Pulsars 2011). The misalignment coupled with a neutron stars intense magnetic field and rapid rotation cause it to create intense electric fields where electrons are accelerated to high velocities where they produce radiation in the form of light. Even though pulsar stars are always emitting radiation, they seem to pulsate in relation to far away observers because the rotation of the neutron star causes the radiation within its magnetic field to sweep in and out, “pulsate”, of an observer’s line of sight in a regular interval (Pulsars, 2011). These first extrasolar planets were discovered because of the effects they had on their stars pulsation. Planets have mass and therefore have an effect on their stars orbit causing it to wobble. The wobble in the case of a pulsar star is seen as the periodic delay in the arrival of the pulses from the pulsar star (Wolszczan 1994). Due to the nature of a Pulsar star we can detect perturbations in its orbit through its pulses but to detect perturbations in other stars orbits, astronomers use a stars radial velocity.
The radial velocity method was used to detect the first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b (51 Peg b) around a main sequence star, 51 Pegasi (51 Peg). The radial velocity method uses the variations in velocity of a star due to the gravitational pull from an exoplanet (Lissauer 2002). Furthermore the velocity isn’t measured in terms of actual speed but in terms of light based on the Doppler effect. The Doppler effect occurs when a star moves. When it moves toward us, its wavelengths of light are shortened and when a star moves away from us, its wavelengths of light are lengthened. Through the continued observation of the Doppler effect on a stars spectrum of light, the...

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