NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered 16 extrasolar planet candidates orbiting a variety of distant stars in the central region of the Milky Way galaxy, NASA announced on Wednesday.
The planet bonanza was uncovered during a Hubble survey called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS).
Hubble looked farther than has ever successfully been searched before for extrasolar planets. Hubble peered at 180,000 stars in the crowded central bulge of the galaxy 26,000 light-years away or one-quarter the diameter of the Milky Way's spiral disk. The results will appear in the Oct. 5 issue of the journal Nature.
This tally is consistent with the number of planets expected to be uncovered from such a distant survey, based on previous exoplanet detections made in our local solar neighborhood. Hubble's narrow view covered a swath of sky no bigger in angular size than two percent the area of the full moon.
When extrapolated to the entire galaxy, Hubble's data provides strong evidence for the existence of approximately six billion Jupiter-sized planets in the Milky Way.
Five of the newly discovered planets represent a new extreme type of planet not found in any nearby searches. Dubbed Ultra-Short-Period Planets (USPPs), these worlds whirl around their stars in less than one Earth day.
"Discovering the very short-period planets was a big surprise, "said team leader Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore. "Our discovery also gives very strong evidence that planets are as abundant in other parts of the galaxy as they are in our solar neighborhood."
Hubble could not directly view the 16 newly found planet candidates. Astronomers used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to search for planets by measuring the slight dimming of a star due to the passage of a planet in front of it, an event called a transit. The planet would have to be about the size of Jupiter to block enough starlight, about one to 10 percent, to be measurable by Hubble.
The planets are called candidates, because astronomers could only obtain follow-up mass measurements for two of them due to the distance and faintness of these systems.
Following an exhaustive analysis, the team ruled out alternative explanations such as a grazing transit by a stellar companion that could mimic the predicted signature of a true planet. The findings could more than double the number of planets spied with the transit technique to date.
The planet candidate with the shortest orbital period, named SWEEPS-10, swings around its star in 10 hours. Located only about 1.19 million km from its star, the planet is among the hottest ever detected. It has an estimated temperature of approximately 1650 degrees Centigrade.
"This star-hugging planet must be at least 1.6 times the mass of Jupiter, otherwise the star's gravitational muscle would pull it apart," said SWEEPS team member Mario Livio. "The star's low temperature allows the planet to survive so near to the star."
Future telescopes such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will provide the needed sensitivity to confirm most of the planet candidates.
(Xinhua News Agency October 6, 2006)