Thanks to an automated robotic telescope, scientists have spotted three new super-Earths in our cosmic backyard. The planets orbit a star just 54 light years away from Earth. They are described in a paper recently published by the Astrophysical Journal.
The innermost planet was actually discovered using the Keck Observatory back in 2009. But now the researchers have completed the star system, using years of data to put all three planets into place. Like other exoplanets, they were detected by way of their influence on their host star -- their gravity makes the star, called HD 7924, wobble, and scientists can use that to calculate the size and orbits of the planets.
"The three planets are unlike anything in our solar system, with masses 7-8 times the mass of Earth and orbits that take them very close to their host star," University of California at Berkeley graduate student Lauren Weiss said in a statement.
The University of California Observatories team, which took on a year-and-a-half-long campaign to supplement the Keck's data and confirm these planets, credited their Automated Planet Finder (APF) for speeding up their work.
The APF is a telescope that's been programmed to hunt for planets any night the weather is clear, dramatically upping the amount of data that scientists have to work with.
"We initially used APF like a regular telescope, staying up all night searching star to star. But the idea of letting a computer take the graveyard shift was more appealing after months of little sleep. So we wrote software to replace ourselves with a robot," said University of Hawaii graduate student BJ Fulton.
Unlike the planets found by the Kepler Space Telescope (which now number in the thousands), these "Earth-like" planets are relatively close by. As part of his graduate research, Fulton plans to use APF to continue mapping near-Earth rocky planets. After a two-year survey, he expects to have a census of all the small planets orbiting stars like our own sun within 100 light years of home.
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