Software helps UC researchers find invisible planets

MT. HAMILTON, Calif. (KGO) -- You might think it's amazing enough to be able to discover an invisible planet, but some creative UC researchers have found a way to find planets while they're asleep.

It can be said that discovering new planets is all in a night's work for UC Berkeley PhD candidate Lauren Weiss, but the process actually takes a bit longer than that.

That's why she and her fellow team members at the University of California set out to super charge a telescope known as the Automated Planet Finder.

"So the Automated Planet Finder is a telescope that's dedicated to looking for the wobbles of stars and finding the planets around them," Weiss explained.

The telescope is situated at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton near San Jose. It searches for planets that are essentially invisible, washed out by the light of the stars they orbit.

So the telescope hones in on movement or wobbles that suggest a star is being pulled by gravity from a hidden planet.

For years, student astronomers have worked through the night, constantly adjusting the planet-finding telescope to center it on the moving stars. But then Weiss and her team had a better idea.

"And we wrote computer programs to replace ourselves, so that we could go to sleep," she said.

The software makes human-like judgments, from only opening the hatch on clear, dry nights to swinging the telescope to exact positions at exactly the right time.

Weiss said that, after months of automated observation, "We found a nearby star that has three super-Earth-type planets."

The star has the somewhat uninspiring name of HD-7924, but as for the newly discovered planets orbiting it, "I think everyone should get to name their own planet," Weiss said.

The three planets are ten times the size of Earth or more, but one of them orbits its sun on a 30-day cycle, similar to Earth.
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