[ISCNI*Flash thanks Paul Anderson for sending this article, which appeared on June 12, 1996 in the Vancouver Sun.]
MADISON, Wis. -- Astronomers report they have discovered a solar system far closer to our sun than any of the previous half-dozen planet discoveries.
Moreover, the new planetary system has features strikingly similar to our own.
Evidence presented Tuesday (June 11) at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Madison suggests that the fourth nearest star to our sun has a Jupiter-sized companion orbiting at about the distance of Saturn -- and possibly a second, smaller companion at the distance of the asteroid belt.
If confirmed, the new planet -- just more than eight light-years from Earth -- adds another piece of evidence confirming centuries of speculation that planets are common and that astronomers don't have to look much beyond their own back yards to find them.
Some of these, astronomers hope, might harbor the potential for life.
"It's the beginning of a whole new field," said George Gatewood of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, who discovered the planet orbiting a fast-moving star called Lelande 21185. "We've just lifted up the corners of the first page of the book."
After decades of false hopes and dashed promises, astronomers have discovered a string of oddball planetary systems since the fall of 1995.
However, up until now, all have had bizarre features. One planet orbited its parent star in just four days; others were much larger than Jupiter -- the giant of our solar system -- and orbited much faster (and therefore much closer) to their suns. The closest of the previously discovered planets is at least 40 light-years away.
Gatewood's planetary system, in contrast, looks much more like our own. The planet weighs in with Jupiter's mass and appears to circle its star at a similar distance.
Both possible planets also orbit in the same pancake-flat plane favored by Earth's planetary companions.
Prospects for life are dim, however, because all large planets previously discovered are mostly gas, lacking any terra firma. In addition, the star Lelande 21185 is too faint to generate enough heat to support life.
The Pittsburgh observatory had been keeping track of Lelande 21185 for more than six decades with a telescope that is small by modern standards. By plotting the star's course through the heavens, they were able to discern a small wobble in its motion.
Only recently, however, did the telescope get new optics that allowed Gatewood to see the star with ten times the previous precision. "That's what gave us the nerve to announce this," he said.
Gatewood has a reputation for careful observing. Charles Beichman, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, vouched for Gatewood's caution. "He's a very careful worker."
Others were more cautious. "It's an interesting report that requires confirmation," said Stephen Maran of the American Astronomical Society. "This is one where many astronomers are being particularly careful."
Original file name: .CNI - New Planet 6.13
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