It was difficult to miss the massive newspaper, radio and TV coverage that SF State astronomy professor Geoff Marcy received last week for his confirmation -- for the first time in the history of astronomy -- of the existence of a planet outside our solar system.
Last week's announcement produced a flurry of media attention that landed him on ABC-TV's "Nightline" and NBC-TV's "Today" program.
The discovery of the planet, 51 Pegasus, which orbits a solar-type star in the constellation Pegasus, was first announced two weeks ago by a Swiss team of astronomers. That same week, Marcy happened to have time booked on the 3-meter telescope at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose, which was enough time to gather the data to either confirm or refute the claim.
Although astronomers have claimed in the past to have detected planets around other solar-type stars, none of the claims have been confirmed with the level of accuracy Marcy achieved using techniques he pioneered in his own planet search.
For more than eight years Marcy and his partner, astronomer Paul Butler from UC Berkeley, have been searching the Milky Way Galaxy for signs of planets.With more than a million solar-type stars in the galaxy to choose from, finding a planet around one is a matter of luck and time.
Marcy and his team have carefully studied more than a hundred stars, looking for the characteristic "wobble" in a star's motion that would indicate the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet.
Although he has not yet discovered a planet, Marcy has developed observational techniques for planet-hunting which are considered the most accurate in the world -- making him the world's foremost expert in planetary detection.
As Marcy put it, the difference in accuracy between his data and the Swiss team's data is akin to the difference between measuring the size of a crater on the moon with a huge telescope versus looking at it with the naked eye. Thus, Marcy's confirmation has received more attention than the actual discovery of the planet, catapulting Marcy to the forefront of the media blitz surrounding the discovery.
Eric Williams, an astronomy graduate student at SF State who helped acquire and analyze the data that lead to the confirmation, said he is happy to see Marcy and Butler get the recognition they deserve.
"We always knew that a planet detection would come out of this project, but I never thought that we would get scooped," he said.
Williams said that he and his fellow student researchers are proud to work so closely with world-class astronomers Marcy and Butler, adding, "This is a very historical scientific discovery, and I can someday tell my kids that 'I helped!'"
This is not the first time Marcy's research has been in the media.
Over the summer Marcy announced that he and his research partners had verified the existence of a brown dwarf star in the Pleiades Cluster -- another major astronomical breakthrough -- making newspaper headlines worldwide (see Gater 8\31).
After last week's announcement, Marcy was bombarded with phone calls from the press requesting interviews.
"The publicity surrounding this planet discovery may have many positive effects. First, the non-scientist can enjoy the discovery just as much as the astrophysicist. Science should enrich all of our lives," Marcy said. "Second, NASA now must expand its purview from our one lonely solar system to the others. Third, Congress may be encouraged to step up the funding for science in general and astronomy, as well as push for funding of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)."
The media made haste exploiting the most sensational implication of the discovery. If there are indeed other planets outside our solar system, is it also possible that life exists on those planets?
On that issue Marcy remains hopeful but cautious. As he told Ted Koppel on "Nightline" Thursday night, "quite frankly that is the realm of the biologist, and they are going to have a field day now. Suddenly, an academic subfield of biology has been generated from this discovery, namely the field of exobiology."
Whether or not intelligent life exists in the universe remains an open question. But astronomers feel fairly confident that 51 Pegasus is not suitable for life as we know it. At a distance of only five million miles from the star, the surface temperature of the planet is more than 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, the earth is 93 million miles away from the sun and has an average surface temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
For more information on 51 Pegasus and the planet discovery, check out the World Wide Web site: http://zebu.uoregon.edu/51peg.html
[ Golden Gater Online October 24, 1995 ]
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