14 june 2010

Six new planets discovered

Science

Cool Jupiter-like exoplanet CoRoT-9b

An international team, including Oxford University scientists, has discovered six diverse new planets, from ‘shrunken-Saturns’ to ‘bloated hot Jupiters’, as well a rare brown dwarf with 60 times the mass of Jupiter.

The CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and Transits) space telescope is operated by the French space agency CNES. It discovers planets outside our solar system – exoplanets – when they ‘transit’, that is pass in front of their stars.

Once CoRoT detects a transit, additional observations are made from the ground, using a number of telescopes all over the world. Although astronomers cannot see the planets directly, they use the space- and ground-based data to measure the sizes, masses, and orbits of these new planets precisely. This is why, among all known exoplanets, those with transits yield the most complete information about planet formation and evolution.

‘Each of these planets is interesting in its own right, but what is really fascinating is how diverse they are.’ said co-investigator Dr Suzanne Aigrain from Oxford University’s Department of Physics. ‘Planets are intrinsically complex objects, and we have much to learn about them yet.’

‘Every discovery of an extrasolar planetary system is a new piece in the puzzle of how these systems do form and evolve. The more systems we uncover, the better we can hope to understand the processes at play,’ said Magali Deleuil, researcher at the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM) and head of the CoRoT exoplanet program.

The six new planets are:

CoRoT-8b: the smallest in this batch: At about 70% of the size and mass of Saturn, CoRoT-8b is moderately small among the previously known transiting exoplanets. Its internal structure should be similar to that of ice giants, like Uranus and Neptune, in the Solar System. It is the smallest planet discovered by the CoRoT team so far after CoRoT-7b, the first transiting Super-Earth.

CoRoT-10b: the eccentric giant: The orbit of CoRoT-10b is so elongated that the planet passes both very close to and very far away from its star. The amount of radiation it receives from the star varies tenfold in intensity, and scientists estimate that its surface temperature may increase from 250 to 600°C, all in the space of 13 Earth-days (the length of the year on CoRoT-10b).

CoRoT-11b: the planet whose star does the twist: CoRoT-11, the host star of CoRoT-11b, rotates around its axis in 40 hours. For comparison, the Sun’s rotation period is 26 days. It is particularly difficult to confirm planets around rapidly rotating stars, so this detection is a significant achievement for the CoRoT team.

CoRoT-12b, 13b and 14b: a trio of giants: These three planets all orbit close to their host star but have very different properties. Although CoRoT-13b is smaller than Jupiter, it is twice as dense. This suggests the presence of a massive rocky core inside the planet. With a radius 50% large than Jupiter’s (or 16 times larger than the Earth’s), CoRoT-12b belongs to the family of `bloated hot Jupiters’, whose anomalously large sizes are due to the intense stellar radiation they receive. On the other hand, CoRoT-14b, which is even closer to its parent star, has a size similar to Jupiter’s. It is also massive, 7.5 times the mass of Jupiter, which may explain why it is less puffed up. Such very massive and very hot planets are rare, CoRoT-14b is only the second one discovered so far.

CoRoT-15b: the brown dwarf: CoRoT-15b’s mass is about 60 times that of Jupiter. This makes it incredibly dense, about 40 times more so than Jupiter. For that reason, it is classified as a brown dwarf, intermediate in nature between planets and stars. Brown dwarfs are much rarer than planets, which makes this discovery all the more exciting.

Dr Suzanne Aigrain leads a team of UK researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Exeter and St Andrews who participate in the CoRoT exoplanet program. Their research is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Research Council.

Corot family planets