Astronomers still haven’t found an extrasolar planet of remotely Earth-like size, environs, and orbit, but this week in Science comes news of the best-yet facsimile of our own solar system. Some 5000 light years toward the Milky Ways core is a small star with planets of roughly Jupiter and Saturn size and separation. Their signature came clear after scrutiny with 11 telescopes on Earth, aided by a gravitational lens provided by a star nearly aligned with the more distant system. The paper saying as much looks almost like one of those high energy physics collaborations. It lists about 70 authors from a slew of institutions and nationalities. Therefore, reporters had the assistance of several press releases, plus a press teleconference arranged by the US National Science Foundation, and a good chance of giving it a local angle.
As a technical feat, the results do impress. They come from something called the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment or OGLE headquartered in Poland, which is a dandy acronym (more on that score: first data were expanded via the Microlensing Follow-up Network, or MicroFUN, and by the Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork, or PLANET … and a RoboNet is in there too). The microlensing phenomena provided direct scruffs of data from the planets – tiny blips in the system’s signal strength as Earth passed through the natural (and imperfect) lens’s focus, if the Tracker understands it. In principle, if an Earth passes through it just so, it could show up as a blip too. Few if any press stories spell out much detail on how the data occur. That no surprise; it’s not simple. Blip, schmlip. It involves asymmetrical Einstein rings and caustic topologies (!). A Lawrence Livermore Lab supercomputer jockey is part of the act, too.
This could merit a longer feature story to explain. How this swarm of astronomers worked together, their triumphs and petty tiffs (if such there were), why this star was under close watch in the first place, and why one planet might make several blips in the data during a short period of observation might make interesting reading.
NYTimes Dennis Overbye notes the outer plents leave room for smaller inner planets ; Contra Costa Times Betsy Mason talks with a scientist at Lawrence Livermore Lab where, she says, the microlensing technique was developed first. The hed, not likely her fault, is a generic and non-informative “Planets with life may be present” ; Wash. Post Marc Kaufman reports some of the astronomers in the gang are amateurs; Korea Times Cho Jin-seo focusses on a Korean team’s input and gets a good quote on an upcoming, further search for earth-sized planets: “If the odds are one in a million, then we will search through more than a million stars” ; Bloomberg Rob Waters ; Jerusalem Post Judy Siegel-Itzkovich has the Tel Aviv Univ. angle ; Times (UK) Mark Henderson datelines it Boston – presumably at the AAAS meeting ; New Scientist David Shiga has a bit more technical detail than is the norm; Columbus Dispatch Kevin Mayhood puts his microlensing news zoom lens on the nearby Ohio State U. role, where a source says they give such planets license numbers, not names (this one is OGLE-20060BLG-109L) ; Space.com via MSNBC Robert Roy Britt ; Sydney Morning Herald Richard Macey says yep, an Aussie’s in the mix ; Telegraph (UK) Nic Fleming ; … and more.
Grist for the Mill:
National Science Foundation Press Release ; UK Sci. & Tech. Facilities Council Press Release ; University of Manchester Press Release ; Dartmouth College Press Release (with a note that its proud connection is a recent student now at Oxford on a Rhodes) ; MP3 audio file of teleconference ; Ohio State U. Press Release ; Notre Dame U. Press Release ; Univ. Warsaw Press Release via Astronomia.PL ; MicroFUN site ;