Essay, Research Paper: Extra Solar Planets 


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Earths Beyond Earth: The Search for Other Worlds In early 1990, the first
extrasolar planet was detected, surprising everyone by its strangeness. More
planets have now been discovered outside our solar system than in it. These
planets present many great mysteries to the astronomical world. Extrasolar
planets are planets that exist outside our solar system; they are orbiting a
star other than our Sun. So far, eighteen have been found, all of them defying
well-established theories about planets and how they operate (Winters, 46). As
Stephen Maran said, “The new discoveries remind us that ignorance is not just
bliss, it is also a lack of imagination. The newfound planets show us not only
that a solar system is not a rare commodity, but that ours may be plain
vanilla.” (73) Finding extrasolar planets is both difficult and complicated.
The average star, for instance, is one hundred million times brighter than any
planet orbiting it (De Grasse Tyson, 87). “Picking out a planet against the
glare of a star is like trying to spot a 100-watt light bulb next to a
100-billion-watt searchlight,” says Michael Lemonick (54). Also, earth-size
planets are too small to have any significant effect on their star, so they are
almost impossible to detect (De Grasse Tyson, 88). There is, however , a way to
find extrasolar planets without using direct sight: the Doppler Effect. When a
star has a planet in its gravitational field, it makes the star appear as if it
is “wobbling” by stretching the light waves and slightly changing the
star’s color (Maran, 75). A second method of finding a planet is to search
through a disk of debris surrounding a star, such as Vega. Chances are that a
planet will exist there (De Grasse Tyson, 87). Out of the detected planets, only
a few have actually been “seen,” being found by accident by either the
Hubble Space Telescope or the Infrared Space Observatory (Lemonick, 53). In
short, planets can only be found in a limited number of ways, and under very
specific conditions. In general, most extrasolar planets are alike in that they
are all very odd compared to what humans are accustomed. For example, most of
them orbit around sun-like stars no further than 100 light years from the Sun.
Also, they are gas giants, almost all of them being larger than Jupiter, and
have temperatures up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit (Maran, 74). On the other hand,
these planets all have very different orbital patterns; some of them have orbits
that are extremely close to the star that they orbit, while others have odd
elliptical orbits (Naeye, 45). Either way, almost all of these planets differ
significantly from the planets in our solar system. Very little specific
information is known about most extrasolar planets, but a few have been
researched extensively and found to have interesting characteristics. For
instance, 51 Pegasi (all planets being named after their host stars) was the
first extrasolar planet found, being discovered by Swiss astronomers Mayar and
Queloz. This planet is half the mass of Jupiter (seventy-five times more massive
than Mercury), and has the least mass of any of the new planets (Maran, 74).
Also, it is 5 million miles from its star, but still manages one orbit in only a
little more than four days (Flamsteed, 80). 70 Virginis, another odd planet, is
six times the mass of Jupiter, has extreme weather conditions, and orbits
elliptically (Lemonick, 53). Likewise, 47 Ursae Majoris has fierce hurricanes,
and is also larger than Jupiter. The planet with the most elliptical orbit known
to man is 16 Cygni B; it travels from 56 million to 250 million miles of its
sun. In contrast, 55 Cancri B is an example of a tight-orbiting planet, circling
the sun closer than mercury is to our sun (Maran, 74). In summary, what we know
about these planets shows that they are very diverse and strange. Though
strangeness may promote curiosity, a major goal in searching for extrasolar
planets is to discover one that resembles ours or possibly harbors life. Though
strangeness may bring curiosity, the main motive behind finding extrasolar
planets is to discover one that resembles ours or possibly harbors life (De
Grasse Tyson, 86). "The Holy Grail," says Alan Boss, an Astronomer at
Carnegie Institute, "is to find an extrasolar planet that is capable of
supporting life" (Lemonick, 56). However, out of the planets discovered so
far, none are thought to be compatible with life for various reasons. First,
planets that orbit close to their sun are too hot for life. Second, Pulsars,
stars that are most likely to host Earth-like planets, give off too much deadly
radiation. Third, elliptical planets are gaseous and unstable, being up to ten
times more massive than Jupiter. One hope for the possibility of life is if the
large gas planets have moons like that of Jupiter. Scientists believe that these
moons may have conditions which would be conducive to support life (Maran, 74).
Though the chances of there being life on one of these planets is extremely
slim, we may someday detect one that is suitable. Although there has been a
great deal of speculation and optimism about these newly discovered planets,
some irrational scientists still refuse to believe in their existence. In the
1600s, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for saying that there was other
worlds outside our solar system (De Grasse Tyson, 86). Today’s punishment is
not nearly as harsh, but often planetary scientists are ridiculed for their
discoveries, because in the opinion of some scientists there is “a lack of
substantial evidence” (Maran, 75). How can we be so silly as to assume that we
are the only planetary island in a vast ocean of stars? Also, many theories are
being eliminated by extrasolar planets, causing stubborn astronomers to become
uneasy. One instance is the theory of a star’s formation; when a star is being
made, strong winds blow away all debris orbiting near it. The presence of large
planets with tight orbits contradict this theory. There are also some doubts
about the Doppler effect, in that it may simply be the result of fluctuations of
the star’s surface, and not planets at all (De Grasse Tyson, 88). What
constitutes most doubt, however, is the existence of Brown Dwarf Stars. Brown
Dwarfs are stars in elliptical orbits around other stars that do not have enough
mass for nuclear reactions in their cores (Winters, 47). They "bridge the
gap in mass between stars and planets," as Robert Naeye says (45), and
almost always have elliptical orbits (Winters, 46). In fact, brown dwarfs would
explain many of these odd "planets" that have been located. Thus,
extrasolar planets are not only unstable in structure, but in existence as well,
being doubted and contradicted just as much as supported and proven. The
extrasolar planets that have been found raise more questions, rather than giving
answers. They have shot down theories, confused speculators, and left us with
puzzle pieces that simply do not fit together, according to current theories. At
the same time, they have opened up doors to new possibilities, expanded our
knowledge, and given us hope for life elsewhere. These new discoveries help us
to realize how ignorant we are to the processes of the universe. 
De Grasse Tyson, Neil. “The Search for Planets.” Natural History Oct.
1997: 86-9. Flamsteed, Sam. “Impossible Planets.” Discover Sep. 1997: 78-83.
Lemonick, Michael. “Searching for Other Worlds.” Time Feb. 1997: 52-7. Maran,
Stephen. “Planets Around Other Stars are Hot Hot Hot.” Smithsonian Sep.
1997: 72-6. Naeye, Robert. “The Strange New Planetary Zoo.” Astronomy Apr.
1997: 42-9. Winters, Jeffrey. “Planets by the Dozen.” Discover Jan. 1997:
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