Astronomers Find Elusive Planets in Decade-Old Hubble Data

The left image shows the star HR 8799 as seen by Hubble's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer in 1998. The left image shows the star HR 8799 as seen by Hubble's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer in 1998. The center image shows recent processing of the data with newer, sophisticated software. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
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October 06, 2011

In a painstaking reanalysis of images taken in 1998 by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have found visual evidence for two exoplanets that went undetected back then. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars beyond our sun.

Finding these hidden gems in the Hubble archive gives astronomers an invaluable time machine for comparing much earlier planet orbital motion data to more recent observations. It also demonstrates a novel approach for planet hunting in archival Hubble data.

By finding the planets in multiple images spaced over years of time, the orbits of the planets can be tracked. Knowing the orbits is critical to understanding the behavior of multiple-planet systems because massive planets can perturb each other's orbits.

"From the Hubble images we can determine the shape of their orbits, which brings insight into the system stability, planet masses and eccentricities, and also the inclination of the system," said Remi Soummer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., who was formerly a Michelson Fellow, part of a program administered by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The fellowship is now called the Sagan Fellowship program.

Soummer next plans to analyze approximately 400 other stars in the archive with the same technique, improving image quality by a factor of 10 over the imaging methods used when the data were obtained.

"We wanted to revisit surveys taken of young, nearby stars, as these are prime targets for imaging exoplanets," says Laurent Pueyo, a NASA Sagan Fellow working with Soummer. "Stars with evidence of circumstellar dust will also be good targets, as this is commonly linked with planet formation."

Read the full story from the Space Telescope Science Institute at http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2011/29/ .

The Sagan Fellowship Program is administered by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech, whose purpose is to advance the scientific and technical goals of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program. The Exoplanet Exploration Program is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

2011-315



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