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Planets and Exoplanets

This article appeared in the January 29, 2016 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

Planets and Exoplanets

An artist's rendering of a red dwarf star system with three orbiting exoplanets - similar to the Wolf 1061 star system, from NASA

 

By Vinita Domier

Special to the Enterprise

 

Recent announcements about a possible ninth planet in our solar system and an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star have excited professional and amateur astronomers alike. The potential existence of this very distant ninth planet has been inferred by detecting its gravitational effects on the orbits of other solar system bodies. The nearby extra-solar planet that could potentially support life has been deduced by observing its subtle effects on the star it orbits.

 

On January 20, 2016, Caltech University astronomers announced that the observed perturbations in the orbits of certain Kuiper Belt objects beyond Neptune could be mathematically explained by a hypothetical ninth planet’s gravitational influence. This planet, if it exists, would be about ten times more massive than Earth, and would take 10,000-20,000 years to revolve once around the Sun in a highly elliptical orbit at a distance of about twenty times further out than Neptune.

 

On December 17, 2015, University of New South Wales astronomers announced the discovery of the nearest exoplanet to date that could potentially harbor life. Wolf 1061c is the middle of three exoplanets detected orbiting the red dwarf star, Wolf 1061, in the Ophiuchus constellation. At a mere distance of 13.8 light years from Earth, it orbits its parent star in the ‘habitable zone’ where liquid water – essential for life as we know it – could exist.

 

Even a casual naked-eye observer of the night sky can discern the relative movements of a handful of blobs of light against the background of thousands of pinpricks of stationary light. The ancient Greeks identified the blobs as planets (literally meaning wandering stars) and the pinpricks as stars, and in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus correctly deduced that these planets revolve around the Sun.

 

In 2006, International Astronomical Union (IAU) redefined a planet as a nearly spherical body revolving around the Sun in an orbit that is not traversed by any other solar system object. A dwarf planet is a nearly spherical body that is not itself a moon, and is orbiting the Sun in a path that is not clear of other solar system objects. (Erstwhile planet Pluto was hence reclassified as a dwarf planet). An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. Six planets have been known since antiquity, and the first extra-solar planet was discovered in 1995.

 

Known planets and dwarf planets have been visually detected as they are within our solar system. The exoplanets are detected by sophisticated indirect methods, as visual detection is not possible because of their vast distances from Earth and close proximity to their stars. To date, IAU officially recognizes 8 planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), 5 dwarf planets (Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea), and 1935 exoplanets.

 

Join the Davis Astronomy Club on Saturday, January 30 starting at 7pm at the Explorit Science Center (3141 5th Street, Davis) when we will discuss planets and exoplanets and how they are detected. Everyone is invited to the free meeting indoors, followed by a star party outdoors (weather permitting).

 

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Explorit’s coming events:

 

  • Explorit’s Exploration Gallery is open to the public every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-5:00 p.m. and every Friday, 3:00-6:00 p.m.  Admission is $5.00 per person; Explorit members, teachers and children 2 and under are free. Come check out the new Nano Mini Exhibition!
  • Join us for our next free public science lecture “California Raptor Center: From Rehabilitation to Release” with Michelle Hawkins on Tuesday, February 2nd, 7:00 p.m. at DMG Mori, 3805 Faraday Ave. in Davis.
  • Interested in membership?  Think your Explorit membership may have lapsed?  Call Explorit at 530-756-0191 to check or sign up!

 

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Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org, or “like” us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/explorit.fb.

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