Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Alpha Centauri has a planet

In this case, the planet is low mass but very close in. The Doppler shift in the starlight amounts to a mere half meter per second – slower than walking speed! When I read that I was stunned; that low of a signal is incredibly hard to detect. Heck, the star’s rotation is three times that big. But looking at the paper, it’s pretty convincing. They did a fantastic job teasing that out of the noise. 

The graph displayed shows the effect of the planet on the star. RV means "radial velocity", the speed toward and away from us as the star gets tugged by the planet. The x-axis is time, measured in units of the period of the planet (in other words, where it reads as 1 that means 3.24 days). The dots look like they’re just scattered around, but when you average them together – say, taking all the dots in a one hour time period – you get the red dots shown (the vertical lines are the error bars). The signal then pops right out, and you can see the tell-tale sine wave of a planet pulling its star.

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