by Brooks Hays
Cambridge, Mass. (UPI) Dec 17, 2014
For the first time, a ground-based telescope has observed a super-Earth alien planet passing in front of its host star. The exoplanet, roughly twice the size of Earth, is 55 Cancri e. Its host star is 55 Cancri, a Sun-like star 40 light-years away that can be spied with the naked eye in the Cancer constellation.
The telescope is the Nordic Optical Telescope, located on the small island of La Palma -- the most north-westerly of Spain's Canary Islands. The relatively small telescope is outfitted with cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art instrumentation; its tools allows it to detect even the slightest of dimming in stars like 55 Cancri. And thats what happened recently.
Because the Nordic Optical Telescope was able to measure a 0.05 percent decrease in the binary star system's brightness -- a dimming that lasted for almost two hours -- scientists were able to confirm the size of 55 Cancri e as roughly 16,000 miles in diameter, about twice the size of Earth.
"Our observations show that we can detect the transits of small planets around Sun-like stars using ground-based telescopes," Ernst de Mooij, an astronomer at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom, explained in a recent press release.
Mooij is the lead author of a new study on the Nordic Optical Telescope's recent obersavtions; the paper was published this month in Cornell's online open-source journal arXiv.
Turbulence in Earth's atmosphere makes the task of minute astronomical measuring and observation exceedingly difficult. But scientists are hopeful this latest study proves ground telescopes are ready for larger scientific responsibilities. With so many probes and satellites expected to beam back new data about yet-to-be-discovered exoplanets in the coming years, scientists needed a greater capacity to conduct followup studies from the ground.
"We expect these surveys to find so many nearby, terrestrial worlds that space telescopes simply won't be able to follow up on all of them," added co-author Mercedes Lopez-Morales, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Future ground-based instrumentation will be key, and this study shows it can be done."
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