Astronomers Discover New Super-Earth
Using ground-based telescopes, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced Dec. 16 that it has "discovered a 'super-Earth' orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. ... Although the super-Earth is too hot to sustain life," the CfA said, it proves that "current, ground-based technologies are capable of finding almost-Earth-sized planets in warm, life-friendly orbits.
"The discovery is being published in the Dec. 17 issue of the journal
The CfA explained, "Astronomers found the new planet using the MEarth ... Project-an array of eight identical 16-inch-diameter RC Optical Systems telescopes that monitor a preselected list of 2,000 red dwarf stars. Each telescope perches on a highly accurate Software Bisque Paramount and funnels light to an Apogee Alta U42 camera containing a charge-coupled device (CCD) chip, which many amateurs also use."
The statement added, "MEarth looks for stars that change brightness" as planets cross in front of their stars. "Using innovative data processing techniques, astronomers can tease out the telltale signal of a transiting planet and distinguish it from 'false positives' such as eclipsing double stars." It continued:
"Since we found the super-Earth using a small ground-based telescope, this means that anyone else with a similar telescope and a good CCD camera can detect it too. Students around the world can now study this super-earth!" said David Charbonneau of CfA, lead author and head of the MEarth project."
It also said:
"A super-Earth is defined as a planet between one and ten times the mass of the Earth. The newfound world, GJ1214b, is about 6.5 times as massive as the Earth. Its host star, GJ1214, is a small, red type M star about one-fifth the size of the Sun. ...
"Since GJ1214b crosses in front of its star, astronomers were able to measure its radius, which is about 2.7 times that of Earth. This makes GJ1214b one of the two smallest transiting worlds astronomers have discovered ...
"Despite its hot temperature, this appears to be a waterworld," said Zachory Berta, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) who first spotted the hint of the planet among the data. "It is much smaller, cooler, and more Earthlike than any other known exoplanet."
Berta added that some of the planet's water should be in the form of exotic materials like Ice VII (seven)-a crystalline form of water that exists at pressures greater than 20,000 times Earth's sea-level atmosphere."