Hubble’s Cool Planet Hunt

The movement of two stars and Proxima Centuri movement plotted to aid in the planet hunt. Credit:NASA, ESA, K. Sahu and J. Anderson (STScI), H. Bond (STScI and Pennsylvania State University), M. Dominik (University of St. Andrews), and Digitized Sky Survey (STScI/AURA/UKSTU/AAO)

Hubble is going to be looking for planets in around Proxima Centuri and the way it is going to do it is pretty VERY cool. I hope it works! It should be noted so far planets have not been detected there. Now there is a couple of opportunities to try a new technique.

Proxima Centuri is a red dwarf sun and it is also the closest Sun to our system. To have a new look for planets what they have done is to searched a star catalog and found out Proxima Centuri will pass in front of two stars, the first in October 2014 and February 2016. When these events occur there will be microlensing effects lasting from a few hours to a few days.

Here’s the explanation from NASA’s Hubble page:

Astronomers will measure the mass by examining images of each of the background stars to see how far the stars are offset from their real positions in the sky. The offsets are the result of Proxima Centauri’s gravitational field warping space. The degree of offset can be used to measure Proxima Centauri’s mass. The greater the offset, the greater the mass of Proxima Centauri. If the red dwarf has any planets, their gravitational fields will produce a second small position shift.

Because Proxima Centauri is so close to Earth, the area of sky warped by its gravitation field is larger than for more distant stars. This makes it easier to look for shifts in apparent stellar position caused by this effect. However, the position shifts will be too small to be perceived by any but the most sensitive telescopes in space and on the ground. The European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope on Mt. Cerro Paranal in Chile may be able to make measurements comparable to Hubble’s.

Leave a Reply