Researcher hunts for new planets, seeking clues on solar system's origin

Oct 13, 2009 By Anne Ju
Jamie Lloyd searches for Earthlike, extrasolar planets orbiting small, red stars. In this picture, the size of the "star" and the "planet," as well as the distance between them, are approximately to scale. Our sun is about 10 times larger than the stars Lloyd studies. Image: Lindsay France

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Cornell assistant professor of astronomy works on instrumentation that searches the night skies for planets outside our solar system, called extrasolar planets.

Somewhere in the galaxy, a rocky, blue-green planet like Earth, teeming with oxygen, water and life, might be orbiting its own sun. Jamie Lloyd wants to find it.

The Cornell assistant professor of astronomy works on instrumentation that searches the night skies for planets outside our , called extrasolar planets or exoplanets. So far, about 370 exoplanets have been discovered, and more might lead to hints about the origins of our solar system.

"We don't know whether our solar system is an incredibly rare configuration, or an incredibly common configuration," said Lloyd, who joined the Cornell faculty in 2004. "And that has a profound implication for how much life there might be out there in the universe."

An experimental astrophysicist who has spent time in Chicago, California and at the South Pole, Lloyd develops instruments to search for new kinds of planets -- ones with a hard surface, like ours, called terrestrial planets, and ones that exist in the so-called , the distance from a star in which life could be possible.

Up until recently, none of the known exoplanets were terrestrial -- most are gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn. But in recent weeks, a French-led team of scientists announced the discovery of the first confirmed rocky exoplanet, named CoRoT-7b. Calling this planet "Earthlike," however, would be a stretch, Lloyd said.

"This is a , but it's nothing like the Earth," Lloyd explained. It orbits so closely to its star that its surface is a molten lava lake of 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, and molten rock and lava rain from the sky. Not exactly a habitable environment, at least by Earth's standards. But if a planet like CoRoT-7b were to be found orbiting a less massive, less luminous star -- the kind that interests Lloyd -- life on it would certainly be possible, he said.

Nearly all the known exoplanets, including CoRoT-7b, have been detected indirectly with a technique called precision Doppler spectroscopy, in which scientists infer the existence of a planet by observing the motion of the parent star through the Doppler effect on the star's light.

One of Lloyd's major projects focuses on an advanced form of the indirect measurement of exoplanets using an instrument called the Triple Spec Discovery Instrument (TEDI). Built at Cornell, the spectrometer is attached now to the Mount Palomar 200-Inch Hale Telescope operated by the California Institute of Technology. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

TEDI will allow scientists to detect planets that orbit red stars, which cannot be measured with existing Doppler technology. These stars, Lloyd said, are interesting because they have less mass than the already-discovered sunlike stars with exoplanets. Thus, red stars would be "pulled around" much more easily by the mass of its orbiting planet.

Having a low-mass star orbited by a higher-mass planet has advantages for detection. If the planet passes in front of a relatively small star, the planet would block a lot of the star, so the planet would be easier to see.

"We still have a lot of work to do to find an Earthlike planet," Lloyd said. "But there is tremendous focus worldwide on searching for habitable planets orbiting red stars. It is only a matter of time before we find one."

Provided by Cornell University (news : web)

Explore further: Toothpaste fluorine formed in stars

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Team finds smallest transiting extrasolar planet ever

Feb 03, 2009

The CoRoT satellite has discovered a planet only twice as large as the Earth orbiting a star slightly smaller than the Sun. It is the smallest extrasolar planet (planet outside our solar system) whose radius ...

Wobbly planets could reveal Earth-like moons

Dec 11, 2008

Moons outside our Solar System with the potential to support life have just become much easier to detect, thanks to research by an astronomer at University College London (UCL).

Scientists discover a nearly Earth-sized planet (Update)

Apr 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Exoplanet researcher Michel Mayor announces the discovery of the lightest exoplanet found so far. The planet, "e," in the system Gliese 581, is only about twice the mass of our Earth. The ...

Mass Loss Leaves Close-In Exoplanets Exposed to the Core

Apr 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- An international team of scientists has found that giant exoplanets orbiting very close to their stars could lose a quarter of their mass during their lifetime. The team found that planets ...

COROT's exoplanet hunt update

May 22, 2008

Two new exoplanets and an unknown celestial object are the latest findings of the COROT mission. These discoveries mean that the mission has now found a total of four new exoplanets.

Recommended for you

Toothpaste fluorine formed in stars

6 hours ago

The fluorine that is found in products such as toothpaste was likely formed billions of years ago in now dead stars of the same type as our sun. This has been shown by astronomers at Lund University in Sweden, ...

Swirling electrons in the whirlpool galaxy

Aug 20, 2014

The whirlpool galaxy Messier 51 (M51) is seen from a distance of approximately 30 million light years. This galaxy appears almost face-on and displays a beautiful system of spiral arms.

A spectacular landscape of star formation

Aug 20, 2014

This image, captured by the Wide Field Imager at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows two dramatic star formation regions in the Milky Way. The first, on the left, is dominated by the star cluster NGC ...

Exoplanet measured with remarkable precision

Aug 19, 2014

Barely 30 years ago, the only planets astronomers had found were located right here in our own solar system. The Milky Way is chock-full of stars, millions of them similar to our own sun. Yet the tally ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

omatumr
1 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2009
Jamie Lloyd may want to read Nature Phys. Sci. 240, 99-101 (1972), Transactions of Missouri Acad. Sci. 9, 104-122 (1975), Science 195, 208-209 (1977), Nature 277, 615-620 (1979).

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel