[This story combines excerpts from an article that ran in the San Jose (California) Mercury News on February 11, another article from the Vancouver (BC) Sun of February 13 and a third article from the (UK) Electronic Telegraph of February 12, 1996. ISCNI*Flash thanks James Sutton, Paul Anderson and the United Kingdom UFO Mailing List for contributing to this story.]
American astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who last month discovered two planets, announced the discovery of yet another -- this one nine times the mass of Jupiter -- that signals a new frontier of astronomy.
To the cheers of a capacity 800-person crowd attending his lecture at Foothill College [near Palo Alto, California] on February 9, Marcy laid a transparency on an overhead projector showing data gathered from Lick Observatory's 120-inch telescope and analyzed earlier that day.
"This is a new class of planets -- I even hate to use that term -- this may be a new beast... This is a new frontier," Marcy said.
This planet marks the fourth discovered using a phenomenon known as the Doppler effect that measures a star's wobble caused by the gravity of a nearby object.
The new planet, found orbiting a star in the Milky Way known as HD 114762, has an eccentric or egg-shaped orbit and takes 87 days to orbit its star.
Marcy, who has become accustomed to rocking the astronomical world since his and colleague Paul Butler's discoveries last month of two new planets, said that he was especially excited by this discovery because it proves that a planet they discovered orbiting the star 70 Virginis late last year is not a freak.
Like the one announced on Feb 9, that planet also has several strange characteristics, including a mass 6.5 times the size of Jupiter, and an eccentric 116-day orbit.
"When you have two discoveries of similar-type planets, it proves 70 Vir is not a freak," Marcy said. "We're dealing with a new class of planets."
Marcy explained later that he could not claim discovery of the latest planet because astronomer David Latham at Harvard University discovered that HD 114762 wobbled back in the late 1980s. Latham, however, lacked instruments that could break up the light from the stars into colors and determine that a planet caused the wobble.
"So the research languished until we could use higher-precision instruments to confirm that a planet did exist," Marcy said, noting that his student Eric Williams has been analyzing the data for his master's thesis.
Marcy acknowledged that with current instruments, only planets the size of Jupiter and larger can be detected. But next year, advances in data collection and tools will allow astronomers to find planets the size of Saturn.
He was less certain about the possibility of finding intelligent life on other planets.
"I believe, based on my limited information, that all the stars you see at night have planets," he said. "Are there terrestrial planets to allow liquid water to puddle? Let others say whether life exists."
Others are hard at work on that very question. Puzzling radio signals have been detected from Virginis 70, the very star around which Marcy found his first planet last year.
The discovery has raised hopes that extraterrestrial civilizations may exist. However, those responsible for picking up the emissions have cautioned that there is only a slim chance that an alien broadcaster is behind them.
Nevertheless, the scientists -- based at the University of California at Berkeley -- say they cannot explain the repetitive nature of some of the signals from Virginis 70, in the constellation Virgo.
The discovery was made by scientists working on a project called Serendip 3, part of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a privately funded program. On first learning that a planet had been found orbiting Virginis 70, the Serendip 3 team searched their records for data that the project might have received from space near the star. They found one "highly unusual" set of signals with a repetitive pattern. As a result, they have announced that they are going to begin a new search of space near the star later this year.
Growing numbers of astronomers now believe that radio signals from alien civilisations will soon be detected.
"I believe the odds on there being advanced civilisations in our Milky Way galaxy are a thousand to one on," said Prof. Paul Horowitz of Harvard University. His team operates an 84-foot radio telescope near Boston that continually searches the sky for artificial signals.
So far, there have been many false alarms where likely signals have failed to repeat themselves.
Another astronomer, Prof. Frank Drake, said: "The real signal, when it is found, will be unmistakable. I strongly believe that we shall find one before the year 2000."
But other scientists warn that it could be dangerous to advertise our own presence on Earth by transmitting signals.
Prof. Robert Rood of Harvard said: "The civilisation that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at the first opportunity may be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling 'Here, kitty' to a sabre-toothed tiger."
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