A team of American astronomers announced today (Tuesday, Nov. 6) the discovery of a record-breaking fifth planet around the nearby star 55 Cancri, making it the only star aside from the sun known to have five planets.
The discovery comes after 19 years of observations of 55 Cancri and represents a milestone for the California and Carnegie Planet Search team, which this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first attempts to find extrasolar planets by analyzing the wobbles they cause in their host star.
The team's long history of measurements - more than 300 for 55 Cancri alone - made the discovery of a five-planet system possible, said UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy, who with Paul Butler, now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, began observations of many nearby stars at the University of California Lick Observatory in 1987.
The unique 55 Cancri system, located 41 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Cancer, is notable also because its clutch of four inner planets and one giant outer planet resembles our own solar system, though without an Earth or Mars.
"This system is interesting because there's a giant planet at 6 AU and four smaller planets inward of 0.8 AU, with a huge remaining gap in between, right where we would expect to find an Earth-sized planet," Marcy said.
An AU, or astronomical unit, is the average distance between the Earth and the sun, about 93 million miles.
According to lead author Debra Fischer, assistant professor of astronomy at San Francisco State University, the fifth planet is within the star's habitable zone in which water could exist as a liquid. Though the planet is a giant ball of gas, liquid water could exist on the surface of a moon or on other, rocky planets that may yet be found within the zone. "Right now, we are looking at a gap between the 260-day orbit of the new planet and the 14-year orbit of another gas giant, and if you had to bet, you'd bet that there is more orbiting stuff there."
Fischer noted that what occupies this gap has to be another planet around the size of Neptune or smaller, because anything larger would have destabilized the orbits of the other planets. All of the planets around 55 Cancri are in stable, nearly circular obits, like the eight planets in our solar system. Jupiter is located at 5.2 AU from the sun, while Mercury and Venus are closer than 0.72 AU. Earth and Mars are in the gap at 1 AU and 1.5 AU.
"We haven't found a twin of our solar system, because the four planets close to the star are all the size of Neptune or bigger," Marcy said, but he added that he's optimistic that continued observations will reveal a rocky planet within five years.
The new discovery, using data from the Lick Observatory and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. The authors are Fischer, Marcy and their colleagues at the Carnegie Institution, San Francisco State University, UC Santa Cruz, Tennessee State University and UC Berkeley.
Fischer and Marcy also discussed their findings today during a media teleconference hosted by NASA.
Here's the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia's entry on 55 Cancri. All updated with 55 Cancri f t'boot.