Exoplanet hunting team finds more than 100 potential planets

The observations of 1,624 stars, all of which sit within 100 parsecs (325 light years) of Earth, were made using the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument mounted on the W.M. Keck Observatory's 10-m (33-ft) telescopelocated atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

By making the data public and user-friendly, the scientists hope to draw fresh eyes to the observations, which encompass nearly 61,000 measurements of more than 1,600 nearby stars.

Although the dataset wasn't initially created to look for exoplanets, MIT Torres postdoctoral research and team member Jennifer Burt said HIRES has proven itself to be an astute planet-hunter through its furnishing of radial velocity data. Keck's High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument wasn't initially created to measure RV, but astronomers quickly realized it could be used for such studies. HIRES really came in handy, though, by finding when a star's spectra moves in a regular pattern, indicating a potential exoplanet's orbit of Earth. This discovery is consistent with scientists' belief that the smallest planets orbit the smallest stars. "It was created to look at faint galaxies and quasars".

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Until now, the team of scientists has revealed about one hundred exoplanets by utilizing the data from HIRES.

"We recently discovered a six-planet system orbiting a star, which is a big number", Burt says. However, studying a star's radial velocity typically requires a lot of time for observation in order to separate the signal and any interferences. "We don't often detect systems with more than three to four planets, but we could successfully map out all six in this system because we had over 18 years of data on the host star".

The team has found 100 exoplanets using the HIRES data, including one orbiting the fourth-closest star to our solar system, GJ 411.

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The global research team published their findings in The Astronomical Journal. The research team also plans to continually adding more data to the set, so there will always be the potential for discovering something brand new.

"We've gone from the early days of thinking maybe there are five or 10 other planets out there, to realizing nearly every star next to us might have a planet", Burt says. Not all of the stars were subjected to the same level of scrutiny by HIRES, meaning that some stellar bodies will have only several days' worth of data, whereas others have decades. The data is formatted to import into the Systemic Planet Fitting package.

"I think this opens up possibilities for anyone who wants to do this kind of work, whether you're an academic or someone in the general public who's excited about exoplanets", Burt said. "[This] really drives home the point that nearly all of our nearby stars likely have planets around them", she said.

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The catalogue release is part of a growing trend in exoplanet science to broaden the audience and discovery space, which has emerged in part to handle the aftermath of follow-up discoveries by NASA's Kepler and K2 missions.


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