UCR researchers help discover new exoplanet

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On Nov. 15, researchers at Australia’s University of Southern Queensland and UC Riverside published their finding of a newly discovered exoplanet. Funded by NASA, UCR, University of Southern Queensland and grants given by the Australian Research Council, the research team was able to find an exoplanet four times the mass of Jupiter, which revolves around a star that is 2 billion years older than the sun. The exoplanet’s orbit is highly elongated, similar to a comet, unlike the more circular orbit of planets within the solar system.

Speaking on the orbit of the exoplanet, Dr. Jonathan Horner, astrophysics professor at the University of Southern Queensland and part of the Australian team that discovered exoplanet HD 76920b, stated in an email that “At its closest to the HD76920, the planet is far closer than any of our planets come to the sun. At its furthest from the star, the planet is further out than Mars is from the sun.”

It is also predicted that, due to its orbit, the exoplanet will be pulled into the star it orbits and become consumed by it.

An exoplanet is a planet outside the solar system that revolves around a star. Exoplanet HD 76920b is located 587 light years away and is seen only in the Volans constellation in the southern hemisphere. Scientists were able to detect this exoplanet by using the radial-velocity method, also known as the doppler or wobble method. The radial-velocity method uses the force of gravity to identify if a planet is revolving around a star. A planet orbiting a star creates a gravitational pull toward it as the planet orbits the star; from Earth’s point of view, this makes the star appear to “wobble.” While the effect can be slight, a planet’s size affects how large the star’s wobble is, so the effect allows scientists to identify an exoplanet’s existence. This method also provides what the exoplanet’s mass is.

Upcoming research of this exoplanet revolves around learning more of the planet’s habitat specifically trying to find the exoplanet’s density, which will help find its composition. Early next year, the exoplanet has a slight possibility of lining up between its star and the Earth, causing a dip of the star’s brightness, similar to the sun’s light being blocked at a solar eclipse. With the use of the transit method, the researchers can measure the dip in brightness and depending on the amount of dip would determine how large the exoplanet is. Once the density of the exoplanet is discovered, this information would help find the exoplanet’s composition and its atmosphere, according to Dr. Stephen Kane.

Kane, UCR associate professor of planetary astrophysics and part of the research team, replied in an interview, “We’re trying to understand the past, how did that planet end up at an eccentric orbit and trying to understand the future.”

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