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Sunday, October 27, 2002

New Method Can Detect Small Planets

Epsilon Eridani.
Epsilon Eridani.
Credit: NASA
Can you tell the dot in this picture is a planet 1/10th the size of Jupiter in a distant star system? Apparently someone can. A group of astronomers have developed a new technique to find Earth-sized planets around other stars. Previously, astronomers could only find stars two ways: by watching for systematical dimming of stars as a planet passed over them, or by tracking a slight gravitational pull on a star by a large planet. Both methods were limited in the size and position of planets that could be detected.

(CNN) - "Not all stars have large concentrations of dust, but those that do, like Epsilon Eridani, can display certain telltale patterns in their dust fields. These patterns can betray the existence of a planet," the Rochester, New York team said in a statement. Debra Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley welcomed the technique but cautioned that stars with dust disks like Epsilon Eridani are rare. Another Berkeley astronomer, Steve Vogt, seemed less enthusiastic. "Sounds like a long shot to me," he said. "It's quite a stretch to go from a theoretical model, which makes blobs in a map on a disk, to announcing the detection of a planet. There are no doubt many ways to make blobs in a disk, without having planets there."

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- posted by Alex @ 8:49 EST