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Planet Discovered For The First Time Using Einstein's Theory Of Relativity

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May 13, 2013 04:55 PM EDT
Planet and Sun
Discovering alien worlds just got easier thanks to a team at Tel Aviv Univeristy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) who discovered a planet using Einstein’s theory of relativity. (Photo : David A. Aguilar)

Discovering alien worlds just got easier thanks to a team at Tel Aviv Univeristy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) who discovered a planet using Einstein’s theory of relativity.

In all, the new method looks for three small effects that occur simultaneously as a planet orbits its star.

This includes Einstein’s “beaming” effect, which causes the star to brighten as it moves toward Earth, tugged by the planet.

Furthermore, it looks for signs that the star is being stretched into an football shape by the gravitational tides from the orbiting planet, thus causing it to appear brighter when observed from the side versus head on due to the greater amount of visible surface area.

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Finally, the method looks for starlight reflected by the planet itself.

“We are looking for very subtle effects,” team member David Latham said in a press release. “We needed high quality measurements of stellar brightnesses, accurate to a few parts per million.”

Such precision was made possible, the team said, through the NASA’s collection of data via the Kepler spacecraft.

Once identified, the new planet was confirmed by team member David Latham of the CFA through radial velocity observations gathered by the TRES spectrograph at Whipple Observatory in Arizona as well as by Lev Tal-Or from Tel Aviv using the SOPHIE spectrograph at the Haut-Provence Observatory in France.

The planet, a “hot Jupiter,” orbits its star every 1.5 days and boasts a diameter 25 percent larger than Jupiter’s and is estimated to weigh twice as much.

Furthermore, the team reports that they have identified strong evidence the planet has extremely fast jet-stream winds carrying heat around it. Thus, the hottest point on the planet isn’t the substellar or “high noon” point, but a location offset by about 10,000 miles – an effect that’s only been identified once before.

While the new-found technique of planet-hunting isn't capable of finding Earth-sized worlds given current technology, it neither requires high-precision spectra or precise alignment of planet and star as seen from Earth as in other techniques.

“Each planet-hunting technique has its strengths and weaknesses,” said CFA’s Avi Loeb. “And each novel technique we add to the arsenal allows us to probe planets in new regimes.”

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