Robotic Telescope Finds Super Earths

Finding new planets through a telescope is nothing new, but having a robotic telescope find them on its own, is. That is what has been reported recently in the Astrophysical Journal. The discovery of three new planets around a nearby star was reported and then confirmed by a third telescope.

Reporting the Robotic Telescope Find

One of the authors of the published study, Lauren Weiss of the University of California at Berkeley, stated that the three new planets are in an orbit very close to their star. They are called Super Earth simply because they have a mass that is seven to eight times that of the Earth’s. (No, its namesake does not refer to what the surface of these planets might be like.) However, for these planets that orbit so close to their sun (like our Mercury), the chance for life on them is believed to be negligible.

Scientists initially found evidence of these three planets orbiting the star HD 7924, in 2009 at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, but this finding by the robotic telescope confirms the exciting adventure the existence of these Super Earths. The new observations come through using the Automated Planet Finder (APF) at the Lick Observatory in California, and the Automatic Photometric Telescope (APT) at the Fairborn Observatory in Arizona. The find was confirmed through further observations at the Keck Observatory. The star HD 7924 is only 58 light years from our Earth and the three planets take approximately 15 to 24 days to orbit their sun.

Sleepless Nights Leads to New Robotic Telescope Technology

Co-author of the report, Benjamin J. Fulton, states that the APF was used like a regular telescope, with researchers staying up all night searching the stars one by one. Eventually, they wrote a software program that would create robotic telescopes to take over the graveyard shift and automated the process. Andrew Howard, a University of Hawaii astronomy professor and another co-author says that this kind of automation can be a game-changer for astronomy. He says that it’s like having a driverless car that goes shopping on its own and brings back the groceries.

These types of planets aren’t necessarily found by taking pictures of them through robotic telescopes or other telescopes. Rather, these were found by measuring the wobble their gravitational pull exerts on their star, a process called the Doppler Method. Other methods include monitoring shadows as they cross their host star. This new automated process is also part of a plan to survey the skies systematically for other planets, creating a census and map of planets orbiting suns to about 100-light years from Earth. Weiss states that she feels these types of robotic telescopes will be the way scientists find planets in the future. Automating the process of searching the skies for new planets can certainly streamline the adventure by freeing up astronomers, other researchers from the tedious, eye-straining work of looking for needles in a haystack.

Of fireworks in a sky above a lake in Wisconsin, this video still evokes why telescopes were invented in the first place — to look up, up, and away from our vantage points on Earth: