The latest results from the Corot orbital observatory are convincing scientists that the French-led planet-finding/astero- seismology mission will be able to obtain even more startling data than predicted.
Launched into low Earth orbit in December 2006, Corot is the first spacecraft dedicated to the search for planets outside the Solar System, and the first observatory capable of detecting small, rocky planets and not just gaseous giants like Jupiter.
The 2.5-year mission also aims to make the most comprehensive study to date of stellar interiors. Corot is sponsored by French space agency CNES and the CNRS national science research agency, the European Space Agency, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and Brazil.
In its first year of operation, Corot’s afocal photometric telescope – developed by Thales Alenia Space based on technology from France’s Helios 2 optical intelligence satellite – has observed several thousand stars in four regions of the sky. It spent its first 60 days, following commissioning last February, focused in the direction of Unicorn (Monoceros). It then trained its sights on the Snake’s Tail (Serpens Cauda) for two campaigns of 26 and 150 days, respectively. The observatory is now pointing to another area in the direction of Unicorn, where it will remain for at least 150 days.
Admittedly, observations so far have yielded only two planetary discoveries, both in the giant category, adding just marginally to the 270 or so exoplanets currently known. The first, disclosed in May, is 1.78 times the radius of Jupiter and 1.3 times its mass. It orbits a yellow dwarf star similar to the Sun, with a period of approximately 1.5 days, situated 1,500 light-years from Earth in the direction of Unicorn. The second, disclosed on Dec. 20, is 1.4 times bigger than Jupiter with 3.5 times more mass and is located 800 light-years away toward Serpens.
However, mission leaders say the existence of another 40 or so planets is awaiting confirmation, and the number is “growing by the day.” The list includes two planets smaller than the two discovered so far–one the size of Jupiter, but with a much different density; the other about half the size of Saturn. Moreover, the mass of data received by Corot has only begun to be analyzed, and more than 100,000 stars remain to be observed, says Annie Baglin, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory. More results are expected next month.
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