- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

Scientists at NASA's Washington headquarters announced yesterday that an international team of astronomers has located 15 new planets beyond Earth's solar system and, for the first time, what they see looks familiar.

"Today we are announcing the discovery of a planet [with] a mass a little bit more than our Jupiter and that resides in a very similar orbit," said Geoff Marcy, an astronomy professor at University of California at Berkeley and co-leader of the mission with partner Paul Butler. The two astronomers form the world's premier planet-hunting team.

The Jupiterlike planet is orbiting a star much like our sun, located in the constellation Cancer, which was already known to have one planet in orbit. The new planet is about as old about 5 billion years as the sun.

Distances between stars are measured in astronomical units (AU), with one unit representing the 93-million-mile distance between Earth and the sun. Among the new planets is one believed to be the smallest ever located, with a mass roughly half that of Saturn. It orbits a star in the constellation Auriga at a distance (0.05 AU) nearly one-twentieth of the gap between Earth and the sun.

Cataloging extrasolar planets is a relatively new field. Although the first one was located in 1995 by Swiss astronomers, only 78 had been discovered prior to the finds announced yesterday. Mr. Marcy's team began its own National Science Foundation and NASA-funded study scanning the areas around 300 stars in 1987.

It now monitors more than 1,200 stars through high-powered telescopes at observatories in Keck, Hawaii; San Jose, Calif.; and New South Wales, Australia.

"We went through a few years of frustration trying to perfect the instruments at our Keck observatory, but it's been very rewarding," said team member Steven Vogt, an astronomer at University of California at Santa Cruz.

The group also plans to operate a fourth telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile within the next two years. Able to monitor an additional 800 stars, the new location would give the team an undisputed monopoly on extrasolar research.

"Our goal is to monitor all nearby sublight stars out to about 50 parsecs, and find out which ones have planets," Mr. Butler said. "The site in Chile will enable us to watch the ones we don't already monitor."

NASA spokesman Donald Savage said that the agency plans to launch the Terrestrial Planet Finder a space-based telescope that will photograph Earth-sized planets sometime within the next decade, but that the exact timetable still depends on technological advances.

Mr. Vogt, who in 1996 perfected the high-resolution spectrometer used on the Keck Telescope, predicted that astronomers should have the ability to locate planets five times the size of Earth in three to five years.

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