Backyard stargazers have hit the science headlines by helping discover a planet around another star.
Four amateur astronomers from the USA and Belgium contributed observations to confirm the new world’s existence.
They used simple electronic cameras on their telescopes to catch and measure starlight in a trawl for planets outside our own solar system.
The amateur-professional collaboration’s first major catch is a planet the size of Jupiter 600 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Corona Borealis.
One of the amateurs who helped find the planet is father-of-two Tonny Vanmunster, 45, who works for an engineering company.
His observatory is a shed which stands alongside a child’s swing in his back garden at Landen, Belgium.
But inside he has two powerful commercial telescopes fitted with electronic CCD cameras to capture and analyse starlight.
The discovery team was led by professional scientist Peter McCullough of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
He rigged up a binocular-style telescope from two 200mm telephoto camera lenses, pictured above, on the summit of the Haleakala volcano, in Hawaii.
The device, called the XO Telescope, cost just $60,000 – cheap for a professional scientific instrument. It scans the sky every clear night and measure the light from tens of thousands of stars.
A computer then analyses the measurements received to check for any dips in brightness that could be caused by a planet passing in front of a star.
The computer comes up with a few hundred possibilities every couple of months. McCullough and his team then select a few dozen that look the most promising and pass their details on to the amateur astronomers.
A star labelled X0-1 was picked out as a promising candidate in June 2005. Vanmunster and the US amateurs began observing it straight away and over the next few weeks confirmed that a planet-sized object was eclipsing the star.
McCullough’s team then turned to the McDonald Observatory in Texas to obtain the object’s mass and verify it as a planet. Confirmation finally came through on February 16.
The new planet, dubbed X0-1b, causes the light from its parent sun to dip by just two per cent when it transits in front of it. The dips occur every four days – the length of the planet’s year.
McCullough said of the discovery: “It was a wonderful feeling because the team had worked for three years to find this one planet.
“The discovery represents a few bytes out of nearly a terabyte of data. It is like trying to distill gold out of sea water.”
McCullough says the new planet is an ideal target for study by Nasa’s space telescopes, Hubble and Spitzer.
Latest posts by Paul Sutherland (see all)
- 17 totally awesome facts about an eclipse of the Sun - 08/21/2017
- World gathers to watch total eclipse of the Sun cross the USA - 08/20/2017
- When can you see the Perseid meteor shower in 2017? - 08/13/2017