The 2019 Nobel prize for physics has been awarded to three scientists:
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. This blog post will
briefly outline why Mayor and Queloz were awarded their prize. In 1995 these Swiss astronomers announced the discovery of the first planet
orbiting another ‘solar type’ star. The star 51 Peg has a very similar
temperature and mass to the Sun and lies at a distance of 50 light
years in the constellation Pegasus. They found the presence of the
planet by taking a series of high resolution spectra using a telescope
in France.

Fig 1: The abstract of Mayor and Queloz’s paper published in Nature on
23rd Nov 1995. Credit Nature Publishing Group.

You might think that the Sun is simply rotating around its axis. Well,
it does, but it actually performs a slow `dance’ around the center of
mass of the solar system. This is because the planets, mainly Jupiter
and to a lesser extent Saturn, cause a gravitational tug on the
Sun. If stars have planets they will also perform a dance around the
center of mass of that stellar system. Astronomers can measure this by
taking a series of high resolution spectra.

Just by seeing a rainbow you will have seen a spectrum of the Sun. If
you take a spectrum of the Sun or a star using an instrument called a
spectrograph you will also see a `rainbow’. However, if you have
enough resolution in colour you will seen dark lines which are due to
elements in the stars atmosphere absorbing light. By taking a series
of spectra over time, astronomers can infer the presence of another
object if the lines move over time in a periodic manner. What Mayor
and Queloz discovered was a planet which appears similar in mass to
Jupiter but is orbiting its host star every 4.2 days. If it was placed
in our Solar System it would be well inside the orbit of Mercury. This
was just the first discovery of a ‘hot Jupiter’ around stars and was
completely unexpected.

Fig 2: An artists impression of the planet orbiting around the star 51
Peg. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

As is quite often the case in science, other groups were also using
the newer generation of precision spectrographs to observe stars at
the same time as the Swiss astronomers and announced the independent discovery of a planet around 51 Peg. These discoveries set in motion the whole research field of ‘exoplanets’ — planets around other
stars. This is why Mayor and Queloz were awarded the Nobel prize. Many
exoplanets are initially detected using the transit method [see
https://armaghplanet.com/on-the-retirement-of-kepler.html]. However,
to confirm that the transiting body is a planet (and not a low mass
star or brown dwarf) high resolution spectra are required.

Fig 3: An impression of the Plato spacecraft due to be launched by ESA
in 2026. Credit: OHB System AG

Today over 4000 exoplanets are known, many discovered using the Kepler mission which ended in October 2018. NASA launched the TESS satellite in April 2018 whose main goal is to discover planets around red low mass stars. The European Space Agency will launch Plato in 2026 which will have a goal of detecting Earth like planets orbiting around solar-type stars.

Blog post by Dr. Gavin Ramsay

1 Comment

Shahidur Rahman Sikder · December 1, 2019 at 20:45

Claim Nobel Prize in Physics 2019

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Yet! Dr. James Peebles- (USA) Nobel Prize in Physics 2019, the prize was awarded for contributions to our understanding of the Evolution of the Universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos, for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology. Again “While James Peebles’ theoretical discoveries contributed to our understanding of how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz explored our cosmic neighbourhoods on the hunt for unknown planets. Their discoveries have forever changed our conceptions of the world.”

It’s I’m discoveries before Dr. James Peebles.

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