A Weighty Problem.

After all the holiday cheer, and eating, you may find yourself (like me) with a few extra things that you didn’t ask Santa for…like pounds.  Around the middle, not currency.  It turns out that science has weight problems also, not like mine, but just as important.

With all these new planets that we have been finding around the Milky Way, scientist need to know more about them, like their weight (ok, technically it is mass, but that would ruin my metaphor).

Now that we know that other planets exist, it isn’t enough to just keep finding them, we actually need to know more details about each one.  With over 2400 already possible, the sooner we can figure out what types of planets are orbiting distant stars, the faster that we determine which of them are habitable and can concentrate more resources on those planets.

Fortunately, Julien de Wit, the very smart man above, has invented a new way of estimating the mass of exoplanets.

Before, scientists had to use the radial velocity (tiny wobbles in a star’s orbit) of the planet to find the planets mass.  This takes a long time and is really only good for very large planets or very close in planets.

Now scientists have a new technique for determining the mass of exoplanets by using their transit signal (the dips in light as a planet passes in front of its star and partially eclipses it).   Normally, transit data is used to determine the planet’s size and atmospheric properties, but the MIT team has found a way to interpret it such that it also reveals the planet’s mass.

So why is this important?  To determine if a planet is habitable requires knowing an exoplanet’s mass so scientists can figure out if the planet is made of gas or rock and, along with other date, if it is capable of supporting life (at least, life as we know it).  So this technique will be able to use existing data for a new purpose.

Well, that is a weight off my shoulders, now if I could only do something about my waist!

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +