Canceri-55: Is it the New Sun?

cnceri.jpgI had a dream last night. It was pretty unrealistic like most dreams are. I was packing my stuff to move to a new place. Oh! Sorry, did I say place? I meant planet. Yes in the realm of my dream it seemed completely normal for me to travel through space and to live on another planet. The packing was still going on when the familiar ring of the alarm brought me back to reality. I was in my hostel room, it was 7 in the morning and I had to get on with it. I had my semester exams starting in less than a week’s time. So preparation was in its full swing. I had completely forgotten about my dream and started planning out the day while reading the newspaper. And just like that, as if my dream had come true, I saw this report on a new planet discovery, which raised hopes of finding a planet like ours for life to flourish. Instantly my dream flashed before my eyes.

Astronomers have recently spotted a record breaking 5th planet in the planetary system of the 55-Cancri, a sun like star 41 light years away from the constellation Cancer. The planet named “mini-Saturn” is the 4th planet from the star and lies in the approximated habitable (green) zone where liquid neither boils nor freezes. However, the size of the planet, which happens to be 46 earth masses, simply suggests that it is a big ball of hydrogen and helium, incapable of supporting water or any other liquid.

More than the discovery of the planet, what seems to have excited researchers is the similarities they have managed to draw out between our solar system and the 55-Cancri system. The system has come to represent a jumbo solar system. Its outer most planet is the size of 4 Jupiters and is at the same distance from Cancri-55 as Jupiter is from the sun. The closest planet is about 10 earth masses and is closer to its star than mercury is to our sun. The new planet is roughly 0.8 earth distances from the star the same distance Venus is from the sun. Astronomers are hoping to discover smaller planets between the 3rd and the 4th planets with the hope that they might discover a planet very similar to earth. Chances of something like that happening, is greater than with any other star, as this is the 1st quintuple planetary system. Before this only one four-planet system, the Mu Arae and several other three-planet systems were known to astronomers.

It took astronomers nearly 18 years to discover the planets of the Cancri-55 system. Astronomers managed this using the repetitive measurements at the Lick and Keck observatories in California and Hawaii, respectively. Researchers were observing the star’s Doppler shift, the change in the wavelength, or the colour, of its light as it moved towards and away from Earth. A star tugged by an orbiting planet will wobble slightly, which can be detected in the star’s Doppler shift, depending on the time the planet requires to complete one orbit. Multiple planets imprint multiple overlapping shifts, which require time and mathematical modelling of possible planetary arrangements. 55 Cancri’s outer planet has an orbital period of 14 years, and thus was only discovered in 2004. The latest planet, astronomers claim was even trickier to find, due to certain irregularities in the mathematical modelling of the planetary arrangements.

Although it took a lot effort, researchers find it all worth it. With this discovery scientists are forced to believe that other stars also have their own planetary systems. One has to understand that the Canri-55 was under scrutiny for 18 years. It is quite possible that there are planetary systems at telescopic vision all across the universe just waiting to be discovered.

Ever looked up at the night sky? The numerous stars studded so beautifully in the night sky. With so many stars in the whole universe it is difficult to accept that there can be no other planet like earth which supports life. With the discovery of the “mini-Saturn” hopes of finding a new earth have most definitely increased. The question now is; how far are we from packing our stuff to move to a new earth? The way things are going probably not too far, in terms of time I mean, distance might just be another story.

Vijay Krishna