A team of astronomers at UR announced in June that they may have found a potential new planet circling another star, CoKu Tau/4.

However, to prove the planet’s existence, researchers must come up with a compelling theory in order to prove the existence of the young Jupiter-sized planet.

The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, included a team consisting of professors of physics and astronomy Dan Watson, William Forrest and Judith Pipher.

They discovered the potential planet by using NASA’s new Spitzer Space Telescope, the largest infrared telescope ever launched in space, which detected a gap in the dust surrounding the fledgling star.

“I suppose we felt excited,” Watson said, “but this turns out to be just the most popular of a long list of discoveries we’ve made since launching the Spitzer satellite, so we’ve been in a constant state of such excitement.”

However, according to Watson, they have not actually found a planet yet. “Instead, we see evidence of what you might call its ‘wake’ as it orbits around the central star,” he said. “Those are often easier to see than the planets that make them – it’s rather like contrails being easier to spot than the high-flying airplane that makes them.”

Furthermore, although the gap the team discovered and the “wake” which orbits around the star provided credible indication that the planet exists, the planet’s age is so young that the current theories and evidences failed to convince astronomers of the presence of the planet.

According to Forrest, the planet is only one million years old, but current theories suggest that in order for the planet to be in its apparent location, it would take at least 10 million years.

Hence, it is causing problems for the major theories of the planetary formation.

However, a leading theory suggests something different. “The alternate formation through gravitational instability in the disc is quite possible, and I think the likely explanation,” Forrest said.

Watson adds that in order to prove or disprove the existence of this new potential planet, theorists must first simply detect the planet. Thus, to accomplish this mission, a new UR team was formed.

A new team, which consists of professors of physics and astronomy Adam Frank, Alice Quillen, Eric Blackman and Peggy Varniere, are trying to come up with new observations and theories that can prove the existence of the planet.”[Their] theories certainly support the interpretation that CoKu Tau/4 contains a recently-formed giant planet,” Watson said.

The new team is currently backing up the original team’s data of how the new planet exists in the gap formed in the Coku Tau/4’s dusty disk.

Also, according to Watson, the new team’s observations offer the possibility of seeing the planet by near-infrared or visible-light images because this planet produces distinctive spiral structure in the dusty disk outside its orbit.

“The data suggests there’s a young planet out there, but until now none of our theories made sense with the data for a planet so young,” Frank said in a press release. “On the one hand, it’s frustrating – but on the other hand, it’s very cool because Mother Nature has just handed us the planet and we’ve got to figure out how it must have been created.”

For Frank, Quillen and Blackman, their task is challenging, but if they can prove the planet’s existence, it would be the youngest planet ever to be discovered in the history of astronomy.

Aoyama can be reached at

yoayama@campustimes.org.



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